Sunday, 30 March 2008


In many Native American wisdom traditions, the whale is the record keeper, the one who remembers earth's history and the life of the ancients from before the flood that destroyed the original motherland. People who are born with whale medicine, it is believed, have the gift of understanding sound, especially those sounds that bring back to us memories of the lost knowledge we so sorely need at this time. How astounding then that recent research by the SETI institute in the US ( has shown whale calls to be more complex even than human language.

In light of this I was naturally delighted to find that Struik has published a definitive book on finding and watching whales, in the very best tradition of illustrated non-fiction for which it is so justly renowned. Whalewatcher by Trevor Day is a richly-illustrated guide that lists all of the world’s whales – as well as their smaller cousins, dolphins and porpoises - and gives detailed information on where and how to see the more common, recognisable and accessible species.

Mercifully, although Japanese whale hunting fleets still plunder the Southern Ocean Reserve every summer, the global attitude to whales has undergone something of a sea change in the past fifty years. Many people would now rather watch these mysterious giants than hunt them. Whale watching, as the author puts it in the introduction to the book, inspires in us a deep feeling of kinship, one that perhaps Native Americans recognised, recorded and celebrated long before the Newtonian scientific tradition and the profit motive came along to obscure it.

Interestingly enough, modern cetaceans, as they’re known, are descended from land-living hoofed animals called even-toed ungulates. Today, this group includes cows, camels and hippos, with hippos being the cetaceans’ closest living relatives. Whales, like us, are warm-blooded mammals, and breathe through their nostrils. And, as sound travels farther and faster than light in water than in air, it seems no surprise to learn that hearing is the cetacean’s dominant sense. By relying on their sense of hearing and, to a lesser extent on their sense of touch, they can find their way around underwater, even in darkness.

Socially, they are highly advanced animals, forming groups with mother-and-calf pairs as the basic unit. Some toothed whale species even gather occasionally in giant schools of hundred or thousands of individuals, stretching for many miles in the ocean. Individuals in these groups are also known to form friendships that may or may not be based on family ties. Southern Right Whales, for instance, often gather in mother-and-calf friendship groups, and adult bottlenose dolphin males form friendship groups that can last throughout their lives. Numerous instances have been recorded of individuals caring for or defending a sick or injured member of the group.

Whalewatchers brings all of these and many more facts to life for the reader, in addition to giving guidelines for responsible whale watching and identifying the twenty-one best places in the world to see cetaceans. Only six of these are in the southern hemisphere, and one is our very own Hermanus in the Western Cape. Here, one can take a boat-based whale-watching trip to see such species as Bryde’s Whale and Southern Right Whales, which are even visible from the beach during the July to September mating season.

Who knows what you might hear if, on a quiet day, you stand on the beach and listen to the whales’ complex songs?

To find out more about this book, or to buy a copy, click here:

Listen to the whales' ancient song
Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this review in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail with any queries.

Friday, 28 March 2008


A real treat for Jo'burgers - next week brings the annual Wits Arts and Literature Experience, which will take place on the university's campus from 3 to 6 April.

This interactive event will showcase the activities of staff, students and alumni of the university's Faculty of Humanities, and will include a rock concert, a host of other music events, theatre productions, a book fair, various literary events and several art exhibitions. It will also showcase a number of films and documentaries.
Of particular interest to bibliophiles will be an event entitled Writers at Large, at which several local authors will read from and discuss their work. Also on the schedule is a creative writing workshop, as well as a relaxed Poetry, Prose and Storytelling get-together on the central lawns.

For further details, read the press release announcing the event at, click through to or call Justine Dangor on 011 717 1091.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


Good grief, I’ve obviously been living on a culinary island!

As Easter Sunday is always celebrated by sharing lovingly-prepared food with friends and family, I thought this would be a good time to check out the latest cookbooks. I wanted, in particular, to see what was happening on the organic scene.
Well, one local web site delivered up 169 pages of cookbooks (I kid you not!), and it was all downhill from there. Being something of a lazy cook myself, I can hardly believe how many cookbooks there are to be had out there. I mean, if I had a functional oven, I’d be baking cookies right now – I’ve never seen so many books devoted to one of my favourite topics.

What is heartening in light of my recent features on factory farming is how many books are being published about growing, eating and shopping organic.

The most recent of these (just released), and one which caught my eye, is The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide by Jeff Cox, a very affordable compendium for the overwhelmed shopper. It gives consumers easily-accessible information on over a hundred organic foods, from fruits and vegetables to meat, poultry, and dairy. This straight-talking book also offers at-a-glance information on such issues as nutrition, storage and preparation, as well as 100 delicious recipes.
As far as straight-up cookbooks go, in the face of such abundance, I thought it best to go with the classics, The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver.

First published in the United Kingdom in 2001, The River Cottage Cookbook is a practical guide to the River Cottage lifestyle. It includes, along with a host of great recipes, tips on how best to buy organic produce and, for the more adventurous, advice on how to grow your own vegetables, rear your own meat, and tap into the free wild harvest. Obviously written with British conditions in mind, there is much to learn from it about organic living and eating, wherever you may live.

Fearnley-Whittingstall writes with humour, wit, and clarity, bringing his readers the best recipes and techniques for preparing simple, honest food, while simultaneously supporting the environment, the development of vibrant local economies and the resourceful use of plants and animals.

Jamie Oliver’s book (published last year) offers a similar perspective. A book very close to his heart, it’s about preparing tasty, no-nonsense food using vegetables grown in his own garden. A great example of the cookery-as-lifestyle book, this one offers over 100 new recipes, as well as basic planting information and tips if you fancy having a go at planting your own vegetable patch.
For more about these books, or to buy a copy or two, just click on the relevant icons:
The easy way to buy organic
Explore the River Cottage way of life
Go home with Jamie
Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this feature in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail with any queries.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008


SAbookworm would like to extend wishes for a peaceful, safe and happy Easter to all of its Christian readers.
Easter is the most important feast on the Christian religious calendar, as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe took place three days after his crucifixion in around CE33. It is linked to the Jewish Passover, as the Last Supper, Jesus' last meal with his disciples, took place at that time. Many Christian churches now celebrate a Paschal meal in commemoration of this.
Easter also incorporates many elements of the old nature religions, especially Druidism. The pre-Christian festival of Oestre celebrated the re-birth of nature in the spring after the privations of winter, and this is where the Easter egg comes from - a potent symbol of new life. Traditionally, this was the time to plan and lay out a summer garden, in particular a healing garden consisting of such herbs as peppermint, sage, lavender and sorrel.
Easter is termed a moveable feast because it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. It falls sometime between late March and late April every year, following the cycle of the moon. It occurs on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon or the first Full Moon of the northern spring, the one that appears immediately after the vernal equinox.
This year, the equinox occurs tomorrow, Thursday 20 March, and the Paschal Full Moon the very next day, on Friday 21 March. Of course, in the southern hemisphere, tomorrow is the autumn equinox, one of the two days of the year at which the sun and moon are perfectly balanced, and the day is equally as long as the night.
In South Africa, 21 March is also Human Rights Day, which commemorates the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the country's democratic constitution.
Easter is always a long weekend in this country, so SAbookworm would like to wish all South Africans a safe and happy holiday. Especially, keep safe on the roads and arrive alive.

Please note: there will be no Bookworm Book of the Week review this week because of the holiday, but there will be one again as usual on 30 March.

Sunday, 16 March 2008


Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer, was first published in 2005, so this isn't a new release. It is, however, an extraordinary contemporary classic, so I wanted to write about it, not least of all because of the story behind its publication.

Like some of the world's most prominent musicians had done before them, twenty-one writers - amongst them five Nobel Prize winners - decided they wanted to give of their abilities to benefit the approximately 40 million people in the world infected with HIV/AIDS. Each writer contributed a story they felt represented the best of their lifetime's work to this anthology and, as two-thirds of those living with the virus are in Africa, committed to donating all profits from the book's worldwide publication to the South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
As Gordimer puts it in the introduction, "rarely have world writers of such variety and distinction appeared on a contents list in the same anthology". And, indeed, this book is a veritable firmament of literary stars, from Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag and Gabriel Garcia Marques, to our own Es'kia Mphahlele, Njabulo S. Ndebele and, of course, Gordimer herself.
Their stories explore the universal themes of love, tragedy, drama, comedy, fantasy, satire and war, and through them we learn not only about others, but about ourselves. They also capture the zeitgeist of the times in which they were written in the way that perhaps even the authors themselves were not aware of.
Arthur Miller's Bulldog, for instance, paints a picture of twentieth century alienation that is startling in just how pedestrian it actually is, while Paul Theroux's Warm Dogs is a chilling - and cautionary - science fiction tale of life in the time of disease. And then there are those uniquely and deeply human stories from Africa, Gordimer's The Ultimate Safari, Mphahlele's Down the Quiet Street, and Njabulo's Death of a Son, the latter a mother's story of having to buy back the body of her child, confiscated after being killed in police crossfire.
Every one of these telling tales goes right to the heart of what it means to be human and, by being published in this way, also gives of that humanity to those suffering with the deadliest disease the world has ever known.
To find out more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:
21 Extraordinary Tales

To find out more about the Treatment Action Campaign, click through to
Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this review in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail with any queries.

Friday, 14 March 2008


Writers Dorian Haarhoff and Bob Commin invite all SAbookworm readers to a storytelling workshop in the Zen tradition - to listen, as the poet Rumi said, "with the deep ear in your chest".
When? 25 - 28 April
Where? Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo
Enquiries (Bob Commin): 039 834 1863 /
"In sharing tales from Zen and other traditions, we rediscover the lost art of story-telling and story-listening. We explore our creativity and imagination."
The workshop will show how to structure and create narratives, meditate on stories, use stories in teaching, tell them to children in need, listen to other people's stories, and embrace the energy of stories in our own lives.


According to the 19th century French poet, Saint-Beauve (Portraits Litteraires, 1862), "each man carries within him the soul of a poet who died young".
There is a poet in each of us, no matter how deeply hidden, so SAbookworm readers will be pleased to hear that Poetry International Web (PIW) has just re-launched it's South African section, after a gap of three years.
The site features poems by and biographies of all of the country's great poets, from our first Poet Laureate, Mazisi Kunene, to such luminaries as Ingrid Jonker, Antjie Krog, Lionel Abrahams, Keorapetse Kgotsitsile and Tatamkhulu Afrika. Also featured is the legendary Xhosa poet, Nontzisi Mgqwetho, the cover of whose recently-released book is shown here.
The local editors aim to showcase both contemporary and historical South African poetry, and to look to the poets for some sense of understanding and peace about both our country's troubled past and its equally troubled present.
Click through here to visit the site:
To find out more about Nontzisi Mgqwetho's book, The Nation's Bounty, or to order a copy, click here:
Hear the voice of Africa

Wednesday, 12 March 2008


There is obviously a place for journalistic objectivity in public debate, but when it comes to social commentary, sometimes the writer simply has to stand up and be counted.
And, in light of the two features I posted over the weekend on the issue of factory farming, I feel it’s important to write about my own position on the subject, as well as on the issue of eating meat.
Factory Farming

Let’s begin at the beginning, with that most burning of questions. Am I opposed to factory farming? The answer is an unqualified “yes” – I believe it is an inhuman and inhumane practice, and that it should be abolished completely.

Do I think that’s feasible? Again, yes, but only if – and this is a huge if – we are prepared to live in a society that puts people and other living things first, one which acknowledges and respects the fact that we are all interconnected, and that an injury to one is indeed an injury to all. Institutionalised violence – in whatever form (and this includes the death penalty) – breeds violence, in an unending cycle of cause and effect. Those who become immune to suffering and death, in whatever way that may occur, simply perpetuate it in some way or another.

Veggie Militant?

Does this mean I’m a veggie militant, though? Well, no. I believe that history has proven to us time and again that social conscience and political systems cannot be imposed from the outside (witness the Soviet Union and Iraq as just two examples on opposite sides of the political spectrum). And perhaps the 21st century brings with it for us this most salutary of lessons: we create the societies we live in from the inside out, one person at a time.

This leaves politicians and social commentators with a very clear role: to inform, to present options, and to encourage and support decision-making at both individual and collective level. This and, in the case of politicians, with the function of actually organising and managing the socio-economic environment.

If we return to the issue of factory farming, then, I believe unreservedly in breaking the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the practice; the same kind of conspiracy, one could argue, that surrounded both the Holocaust and apartheid. I believe in making people aware of the suffering that brings the food to their table every day. I don’t, however, believe anyone can impose a response to this. This isn’t an issue of morality, but one of acknowledging both current realities and the fact that true change can only happen if people believe in it, not if it is mandated.

So it comes down to informing people of the alternatives, and – very importantly – to supporting any and all efforts to change this or any other reprehensible situation.

This is where I part company with veggie militants on the issue of eating meat, for two reasons.

Changing the Status Quo

In the first instance, it boils down to numbers, and to how quickly we can change the current status quo.

In the US, which has a population of approximately 240 million people, approximately 10 million are either vegetarian or vegan, a little over 4%. Let’s face it, as things stand right now, that’s not going to change the practice of factory farming in a hurry. What we need is for literally millions more to reduce their consumption of meat and animal products, and to refuse to buy anything that has been produced on a factory farm. The problem is, if they feel the only option to meat eating is vegetarianism or veganism, the motivation to do this may be minimal.

We have a better chance of change if social commentators and activists present people with the facts, offer a range of possible responses to these, and encourage and reward humane choices. After all, every decent human being cannot but be repulsed by the idea of a beef steer being eviscerated alive on the production line, but not everyone feels able to make a complete change to vegetarianism or veganism, especially overnight.

If, however, they feel they can make a difference in some way or another, perhaps starting small and building from there, they might be encouraged to try. And, in much the way that small reductions in household electricity consumption cumulatively amount to overall savings of megawatts, small actions by a large number of people can have an enormous cumulative impact.

Back to the numbers.

According to, humans eat an annual average of forty kilograms of meat each (including chicken, but excluding fish), and those in the top ten meat-eating countries eat three times that amount (the highest being a gob-smacking 147 kilograms per person per year in Luxembourg). The total consumption of meat has increased three-and-a-half times since the Second World War and, in 2002, worldwide consumption was an equally gob-smacking 247 million tonnes.

If, by informing meat eaters about the true cost of their choices, and by encouraging them to make a cutback of 25% in meat consumption over a two-year period, with a further cutback of 25% over the following five years, meat consumption could be cut by up to 50% in five years, something that would have a significant impact on production practices. This, I believe, would be a more effective strategy than adopting an all-or-nothing approach to meat consumption. It would certainly be a good start.

Encouraging Conversion

The second reason I part company with veggie militants is because, as I have said, I believe that true and lasting change can only come if it’s wanted, not if it’s imposed, and also if every effort in the direction of change is acknowledged and rewarded.

Of course, one can encourage conversion to a less meat-intensive, vegetarian or vegan diet – marketers do this with new products all the time - and that should certainly be one of the roles of activists and commentators. But what marketers understand that perhaps activists and commentators don’t, is that one has to encourage the desire to change – it simply can’t be forced.

Me and Meat

Finally, I feel it’s important for me to be transparent about my own consumption of meat.

Ideally, I would like to be able to be a vegan – that would certainly be the first prize. But, after many, many years of trying – and after experiencing enormous psychological stress as a result – I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m not up to it.

So, instead of focusing on avoiding meat, I’ve been focusing instead on adding fresh fruit, vegetables and other wholefoods to my diet. After several years of doing this progressively, I now find that I consume a mainly vegan diet, only occasionally eating cheese, an egg, some meat, chicken or fish, and then only in small quantities. This, I might add, happened very naturally over time after I stopped obsessing about eating meat.

Part of what has informed my choice are the teachings in several spiritual traditions that there is grace in accepting food offered to one in charity, generosity and love.

Personally, I feel I want to be able to sit down at anyone’s table and to share a meal with them, for there is a certain humility in this. There is also an acknowledgement of diversity, and a surrender of the ego’s need to control people, situations and outcomes.

I champion the cause of humane organic farming and a low-meat or non-meat diet whenever I can (even if I haven’t been able to achieve the latter myself), but accept my own choice for what it is. It may not be the perfect one, but I’m an imperfect person living in an imperfect world, and I’m doing the best that I can.

A Viable Alternative Path

Perhaps, a generation or two from now, meat eating will be the exception rather than the rule, much as cigarette smoking is today. But we have to acknowledge that this is not going to happen immediately and, rather than alienating people who eat meat from the concept of a veggie-centric diet, we need to forge a viable alternative path - starting from where we're standing right now.

For comprehensive but accessible information about animal ethics, visit at
For a comprehensive list of products not tested on animals (which is another whole debate), see Beauty Without Cruelty SA at

UPDATE, 14 MARCH (09:13):
In the past few days, two very interesting articles about factory farming and food security have coincidentally come across my desk. If you'd like to read more, click through to:
Greenpeace International's article, "Feeding the World: Fact vs Fiction" at, and's article, "Chicken Out" at,,1-12-14-66_17942,00.html. You don't need to be a vegetarian to make a difference - just choose organic or at least free range.
And to read a bit about what one group of always-innovative South Africans are doing to foster sustainable living and humane farming, visit Leila's Permaculture at The folk there can also assist you with the information you need to plan eco-friendly holidays.

Sunday, 9 March 2008


This week’s book is about that most fraught of topics – what we choose to eat. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a New York Times bestseller by Michael Pollan, offers a contemporary perspective on this age-old issue, which has taken on such complex new dimensions in the post-war era.

When humans were still hunter-gatherers, the omnivore’s dilemma boiled down to this: as creatures able to eat anything, what was the best way to differentiate between what was indeed edible and what was poisonous? Ten thousand years and the advent of industrial food production later, the dilemma isn’t quite so simple. Not only is the decision about what is good for us and what is bad for us now a veritable minefield, but there are also ethical, ecological and spiritual dimensions to our choices. And so the question has become this: are we prepared to pay the full karmic price of our meals?

What then, at the dawn of the 21st century, are the issues behind the food that we eat?

As Pollan puts it, “(For one thing), there exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organised. Our ingenuity at feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures. This is something nature never does, always and for good reasons practising diversity. A great many of the health and environmental problems created by our food system owe to our attempts to oversimplify nature’s complexities, both at the growing and eating end of the food chain.”

I would hazard a comment that this oversimplification is all the more damaging as it is rooted in nothing other than greed.

It is the demand for the $1 burger that has effectively decimated huge tracts of forest land to provide grazing for cattle, or seen the advent of the hellish conditions in which so-called “production animals” are raised on factory farms. And, on the other side of the coin, it is the profit motive that has created and supported this demand, as food marketers in the developed world have sought out new niches in already saturated markets. In the end, cheap burgers actually cost us dearly - on so many levels.

As far as health is concerned, mad cow disease and bird ‘flu, both of which pose a threat to human populations, thrive in overcrowded conditions. The hormones and antibiotics routinely used in the rearing of “production animals” inevitably make their way into our food. The pesticides, herbicides and industrial fertilisers used to push the land beyond its limit for feed production all end up in our bodies, as well as in the soil and the water supply.

And what of the fact that, of the world’s approximately six billion inhabitants, about one billion are literally starving? Of course, there are political as well as economic reasons behind this, but the planet can comfortably support its current population, if – and here are the real horns of the dilemma – people in developed countries choose to eat differently.

So, amongst many other things, the issues boil down to compromised human health, the inhumane conditions in which “production animals” are raised and slaughtered, the ecological impact of converting virgin land into grazing or farm land into large monocultural tracts for feed growing, and the fair and just distribution of food. As Pallon says, “Anthropologists marvel at just how much cultural energy goes into managing the food problem. But as students of human nature have long suspected, the food problem is closely tied to … well, to several other big existential problems.”

In short, what we choose to eat in this context makes a powerful statement about our ethics and our worldview, even our humanity: “Eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it. Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, that fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the mainstream.”

And then there is the spiritual side to it all. What does it mean to us as spiritual beings to kill for food, especially in the way it is done in our times?

“It may be that as a civilization we’re groping toward a higher plane of consciousness,” says Pollan in his book. “It may be that our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals – like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior beings – can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame.”

Certainly, in a time when researchers have been able to photograph the way in which water molecules respond to human intent, we cannot help but ask ourselves what kind of world we are bringing into being every day if we turn a blind eye to large-scale factory farming, and to the profound suffering that brings our food to the table.
To find out more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:
Be informed
Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this review in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail with any queries.


What They Don’t Teach You at The Harvard Business School is a standard text commonly read in businesses all over the world. Perhaps it’s time we wrote a standard text documenting what they don’t teach you at any school about food production. Here are just a few facts:

Dairy Products
In order to ensure that diary cows continue to lactate throughout their lives, they are inseminated on an annual basis. Their calves are then forcibly removed from them a few hours after birth so that their milk can be sold for human consumption. Female calves are raised separately and, at the age of two, are pressed into service in the mechanically-operated milking stalls.

Male calves are unnecessary to the dairy industry, and are the wrong genetic make-up for beef production. Still learning to walk, and sometimes still with their umbilical chords attached, they are either killed or sold at a live auction, where electric prods are used to herd them into and out of the auction ring.

Dairy cows are literally milked to death, being subjected to mechanical milking machines on an eight to twelve-hour cycle. Although cows can have a lifespan of about thirty years, dairy cows are sent to slaughter between the ages of four and eight, as soon as their milk production decreases. During their lives as "production animals", their udders become artificially engorged and painful, and often become infected, but they are nevertheless still forcibly milked.

Egg-laying hens are packed into wire cages with wire floors, five in a space little bigger than an A4 page. As chicks, their beaks are cut off with a hot blade to stop them from pecking each other in frustration, and two of their toes are amputated to prevent them from fighting and causing other injuries. In these living conditions, hens frequently become immobilised and die of asphyxiation or dehydration. Decomposing corpses are often found in cages with live birds. Approximately 14% of egg-laying hens die during production every year (in the US alone, this amounts to tens of millions of birds).

Those who survive are removed from the farms when deemed no longer economically viable. Some of these "spent hens" (the industry term for layers who have completed their egg production cycles) are sold for slaughter; the rest are rendered, composted, or destroyed by other means, including maceration (ground up alive). In one case alone, 30,00 hens were destroyed by being fed live into wood chippers. By the time spent hens are removed for low production, their skeletons are so fragile that many suffer broken bones during catching, transport, or shackling.

Male chicks, of no economic value to the egg industry, are typically gassed or macerated. Maceration is becoming a commonly-used method for disposing of male chicks.

Birds raised for their meat are crammed by the thousand into huge sheds, without fresh air or enough room to move normally. They are fed growth hormones to speed up the growth process so much that they are ready for slaughter by the time they are forty days old (normally a chicken would take a year to reach full size). Because of the forced growth, the chickens’ legs are not able to carry their weight and are brittle and deformed.

When they are sent to slaughter, workers routinely break the birds’ legs as they catch them and stuff them into crates. Most chickens are not stunned before their throats are slit. Their heads are passed through an electrically charged bath of water that immobilises, but does not render them unconscious. After their throats are slit, they are dumped into boiling water (to help remove the feathers), often before they have lost consciousness.

Breeding sows in South Africa are immobilised for their whole lives. A pregnant sow spends her entire pregnancy in the confines of a barred metal stall, giving birth to her young and suckling them for thirty days on the concrete floor of the farrowing crate. Once the piglets have been removed, the sow is re-impregnated before being returned to the sow stall, and the whole cruel process is repeated over and over again.

Many beef cattle are actually born on the range, where they simply have to fend for themselves or perish. When round up time comes, the terrified animals are often injured, some so severely that they are "downed" (unable to walk or even stand). These downed animals commonly suffer for days without receiving food, water or veterinary care, and many die of neglect. Others are dragged, beaten, and pushed with tractors to the slaughterhouse (abattoir). The remaining animals are taken to feedlots.

Most beef cattle spend the last few months of their lives at feedlots, crowded by the thousands into dusty, manure-laden holding pens. The air is thick with harmful bacteria and particulate matter, and the animals are at a constant risk for respiratory disease. Feedlot cattle are routinely implanted with growth-promoting hormones, and they are fed unnaturally rich diets designed to fatten them quickly and profitably. Because cattle are biologically suited to eat a grass-based, high fibre diet, their concentrated feedlot rations often result in metabolic disorders.

At the standard slaughterhouse, 250 animals are killed an hour and, due to the speed at which the production line moves, are often not properly stunned before being strung up by the back legs and "processed" (see Washington Post report below).

Some male calves are bred specifically for veal. They are fed on an iron deficient diet and kept in dark enclosures to ensure that their meat stays white. Chained by their necks or with their heads clamped into wooden bars, they are effectively immobilised for the duration of their short, miserable lives.

"Production Animals"
Fifty-nine billion sentient animals are killed annually for human consumption, nearly 2,000 every second
. Most of these are born, reared and die in appalling conditions on factory farms. This figure excludes fish, either factory farmed or “harvested” in drag nets from the sea.

In South Africa, animals are legally classified as "movable property", as objects. They have no rights at all, and the animal anti-cruelty laws that do exist are not intended to protect animals’ interests directly, but to prevent people from treating animals in a manner that would offend the finer sensibilities of society. Beauty Without Cruelty (BWC) has been told that government will not allow the rights of people to use animals in cultural or religious rituals to be compromised, and thus animals’ sentience will not be recognised in law.
Food Security
While people in the developed world clamour for burgers that cost $1, and think nothing of eating meat or other animal products at every meal, a billion or more in other parts of the world are starving. We don’t need Monsanto to develop patented genetically-modified seed to meet this challenge. All we need do is look to our diets. We can feed ten times more people per hectare on a vegetarian diet than if that land is used for meat production. As the classic saying goes, you do the math.

What some people have to say about the issue of the omnivore’s dilemma:

"Much as we have awakened to the full economic and social costs of cigarettes, we will find we can no longer subsidize or ignore the costs of mass-producing cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep and fish to feed our growing population. These costs include hugely inefficient use of freshwater and land, heavy pollution from livestock feces, rising rates of heart disease and other degenerative illnesses, and spreading destruction of the forests on which much of our planet’s life depends."
~ Time Magazine Report: Visions of the 21st Century: Will We Still Eat Meat?

"Ultimately, living with compassion means striving to maximize the good we accomplish, not following a set of rules or trying to fit a certain label. From eating less meat to being vegan, our actions are only a means to an end: decreasing suffering."

"In my opinion, if most urban meat eaters were to visit an industrial broiler house, to see how the birds are raised, and could see the birds being 'harvested' and then being 'processed' in a poultry processing plant, they would not be impressed and some, perhaps many of them, would swear off eating chicken and perhaps all meat."
~ Peter Cheeke, PhD, Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture, 2004 Textbook

It takes 25 minutes to turn a live steer into steak at the modern slaughterhouse where Ramon Moreno works. For 20 years, his post was 'second-legger', a job that entails cutting hocks off carcasses as they whirl past at a rate of 309 an hour. The cattle were supposed to be dead before they got to Moreno. But too often they weren’t.

'They blink. They make noises,' he said softly. 'The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around.'
Still Moreno would cut. On bad days, he says, dozens of animals reached his station clearly alive and conscious. Some would survive as far as the tail cutter, the belly ripper, the hide puller.
'They die,' said Moreno, 'piece by piece.'

Under a 23-year-old federal law (which exempts the slaughter of birds), slaughtered cattle and hogs first must be 'stunned' – rendered insensible to pain – with a blow to the head or an electric shock. But at overtaxed plants, the law is sometimes broken, with cruel consequences for animals as well as workers. Enforcement records, interviews, videos and worker affidavits describe repeated violations of the Humane Slaughter Act at dozens of slaughterhouses, ranging from the smallest, custom butcheries to modern, automated establishments such as the sprawling IBP Inc. plant here where Moreno works.

'In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis,' said Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian and formerly chief government inspector at a Pennsylvania hamburger plant. 'I’ve seen it happen. And I’ve talked to other veterinarians. They feel it’s out of control.' "
~ The Washington Post “Modern Meat: A Brutal Harvest,” 2001

"Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight."
~ Rev. Andrew Linzey, Oxford, Animal Theology, 1995

"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.

And in this respect humankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it."
~ Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984

"You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life, 1860

Animals’ Voice:
Beauty Without Cruelty:
Caring Consumer:
Compassion in World Farming:
Compassionate Action for Animals:
Farm Sanctuary:
Mercy for Animals:
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals):
The Christian Vegetarian Association:
Vegan Outreach:

Friday, 7 March 2008


At a time when there is much to be concerned about in our country, Penguin Books has announced a project intended to focus on the positive.

Some of you will have received a copy of the New Year message written by Alan Knott-Craig, the MD of iBurst, to a disillusioned employee. It resonated with staff, who sent it on to friends and family, and it was soon landing in inboxes around the country. The mail was picked up by Radio 702, Carte Blanche, You and Huisgenoot magazines, and was greeted by a deluge of support from battle-weary of South Africans.

Savvy Penguin decided this was an idea that needed to be developed into a book. So, in collaboration with iBurst, they’ve set up a blog, SMS and e-mail forum, and all South Africans are invited to contribute their positive thoughts about our country.

A selection of these contributions will be published in a book entitled Don’t Panic!, which is scheduled for release on 15 May, and which will cost only R50. All of the royalties from the book will be donated to the Tomorrow Trust (, so you can have your say and also contribute to a good cause.

All South Africans are invited to place a comment on the blog at, to SMS contributions to 31889 (standard SMS rates apply), or to email And, for those of you who haven’t already seen Alan’s e-mail, the full text is published below.
P.S. Just a word on “afro pessimism” and “afro-optimism” here.

We live in an extraordinary place in an extraordinary time. This ain’t always easy, as we all know, and focusing on the positive keeps us mindful of what we’ve achieved, as well as of what the success of our democracy could – and should – mean to the rest of the world.

But focusing on the positive shouldn’t blind us to the challenges, which are very real. Democracy in our country is still fragile, and faces many threats, not least of all the current hegemony of the ruling party, and the disturbing selection of leaders at its Polokwane Conference in December. Aids, crime and the plainly immoral gap between rich and poor are just a few others.

That said, quantum physicists recognise that the intention of the observer has an actual physical effect on what is being observed. This is the power of thought and focus. So let’s focus on the positive (it’s really the only way forward, after all), but let’s not allow this to become a self-congratulatory bubble. For the rest of our lives, everyone living in South Africa today will have to roll up their sleeves and make a tangible difference in some way – one step at a time.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


The architects of our democracy knew that there is really only one way to approach reconciliation after conflict, and that is through the truth. But this means the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and what does that mean, especially in the South African context?
Well, the same as it means anywhere else, I would imagine: that each of has has to stand up and be counted for what we have done or left undone, and that there has to be a place in our annals for everyone’s story. After all, if there isn’t a seat for everyone at the table of democracy, what’s it all about?

It’s for this reason that I was heartened to learn about the publication of A Secret Burden, a collection of poetry and prose about the so-called Border War written by the South African soldiers who fought in it. These were collected from ex-combatants by Dr Karen Batley, the book’s editor, shortly after South Africa withdrew from Angola in 1989, and are now being published for the first time.

In the 17 years that preceded the withdrawal, approximately 600,000 young white men were conscripted into the South African army, and a large number of these were deployed either in northern Namibia or in cross-border operations into Angola during the 1980’s.

Many, as it says in the book’s introduction, returned to be greeted as apartheid stooges, were excluded from further education, and relegated permanently to working class status. “The personal experiences, anxieties and suffering of the young soldiers sent to fight in this war have been ignored and denied,” it continues, “largely because it was deemed to be politically incorrect/unpatriotic to discuss the Border War and its aftermath.” The losers, as they usually are, were silenced.

In an eloquent foreword to the book, Honourable Yvonne Mokgoro, a Constitutional Court Judge, speaks of the impact silences like these ultimately have on the collective psyche: “The struggle for liberation and the war in northern Namibia and Angola deeply affected the South African people, their children and the social fabric of our society. It still does … Soldiers came home carrying their rucksacks of emotional and mental scars, which accompany them to this day (and) … (m)any of the battle-scarred warriors were conscripts, those who (had) no choice, as conscripts over the ages and in many wars can testify”.

Only now, as she says, are South Africans “re-discovering and re-evaluating a turbulent past and its permutations.
"In a sense, they are reliving the sensitive, angular optics of our heritage as a community of citizens. Perhaps the time for unburdening has come, and for people to confront the war and its lingering effects.”

In my opinion, the time has come to confront not only the legacy of this war, but the legacies of the past 120 years as well; those which still fall within active memory.
There are some of us alive today, for instance, who have not only lived through apartheid, the struggle for freedom, the transition period and the first fourteen years of democracy, but who have heard about such history as the Boer War (now also known as the South African War), life on the diamond diggings at Kimberley, the Great Depression, the first forced removals, and the Sofasonke movement that pre-dated the establishment of Soweto from people who either lived through it or were directly affected by it. The silences that still exist about so much of our history are festering, and threaten the very fabric of the new South Africa in a real way.

There is no doubt that white-on-black racism is still, for too many, “our daily bread” as the leader of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) put it this week, or that the scales of extreme poverty and deprivation still weigh down heavily on our country’s black citizens. But there is also no doubt that there is a crisis of governance in the country, or that white people, told in as many words by the post-Mandela government that they are irrelevant, have come to feel increasingly marginalized.

This is a cocktail for disaster, as the more and more volatile political incidents on the ground prove. Worse still, these are just a taste of what could come if we do not find a way to purge our country of the legacies of the past, and to accommodate all realities in the great social experiment of which we are all a part.

One of the tools at our disposal is story, which brings each of us face-to-face with the humanity of the other, and with the complex truth about our past. Who would not, for instance, be moved by this narrative from an anonymous conscript about the loss of a close relationship in that time of war:

“One day I began a relationship with a fellow being on the Border – a Southwest desert gecko. She was pure white, with scales on her body. Later I realised she was pregnant – that’s how I knew she was female. She was my best friend on the Border. She was tiny when I found her amongst my tent bags on the ground, but she soon grew large. I tamed her by stroking her head and body. Anyone else would have found her hideous, so I kept her absolutely secret.

“And then one evening, just before I returned to the States (that is, South Africa), I came upon her in front of the Ops Room, where she lay pregnant and dying near my tent. It broke me more than all the death I had seen in the war. I will never forget it – it will never leave me. I kept her warm in my bed, and the next day I buried the ugly, swollen creature next to my tent. I think a bit of my soul went into her grave with her.”

The book, of course, is filled with stories and poems like these - some much more graphic, some philosophical, some angry, some despairing - told by nineteen-year-old boys sent into the desert to kill or be killed. These must surely convince us that division is an illusion, and that the very concept of a righteous war is the greatest illusion of them all.

As Honourable Mokgoro puts it, past, present and even future wars inevitably leave their mark. And then the question must inevitably be asked: can we continue, in any good conscience, not to acknowledge these marks, or to carry them with us like heavy yokes into the times that lie ahead?

Unfortunately not available at - check your local bookstore.
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