Wednesday, 29 October 2008


I confess that I can't keep up with all of the new books being released at the moment - it's a veritable embarrassment of riches. There are, however, a few that have really caught my eye, so here's my latest selection of new releases:


Electric Capitalism: Recolonising Africa on the Power Grid
David A Mc Donald (Ed)
HSRC Press

From the extraordinary HSRC Press comes Electric Capitalism, co-published with Earthscan, an impeccable investigation into the politics and economics of access to electricity in Africa.

Africa's economies are as dependent on electricity as those of the developed nations, but it remains the world's most under-supplied region. Not only that, but there are enormous inequalities of access, with industry receiving an abundant supply of cheap power, while more than 80 per cent of the continent's population remains off the grid.
Africa is not unique in this respect, but levels of inequality are particularly pronounced here due to the inherent unevenness of 'electric capitalism' on the continent.

This book provides an innovative theoretical framework for understanding electricity and capitalism in Africa, followed by a series of case studies that examine different aspects of electricity supply and consumption.

The chapters focus primarily on South Africa due to its dominance in the electricity market, but there are important lessons to be learned for the continent as a whole, not least because of the aggressive expansion of South African capital into other parts of Africa in order to develop and control electricity. Africa is experiencing a renewed scramble for its electricity resources, conjuring up images of a recolonisation of the continent along the power grid.

Written by leading academics and activists, Electric Capitalism offers a cutting-edge, yet accessible, overview of one of the most important developments in Africa today - with direct implications for health, gender equity, environmental sustainability and socio-economic justice. From nuclear power through prepaid electricity meters to the massive dams projects taking place in central Africa, an understanding of electricity reforms on the continent helps to shape our insights into development debates in Africa, and the expansion of neo-liberal capitalism across the world.

For more about this book, to order a copy or to download a free electronic version, click through to HSRC Press.

The Mbeki Legacy
Brian Pottinger
Random House Struik

This book takes stock of Mbeki’s presidency by focusing on a simple question: how did South Africa prosper or weaken under his stewardship?

The Mbeki Legacy covers Mbeki’s consolidation of power and his defeat at Polokwane, weighs up his policies on crime, education and health; investigates the arms deal and the electricity crisis; and considers the effects of land reform and BEE.

A compelling, accessible and authoritative analysis of Mbeki’s political, economic and social legacies, and an insightful glimpse into the post-Mbeki era.


The Heretic's Daughter
Kathleen Kent

Martha Carrier was hanged on 19 August 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Unyielding in her refusal to admit to being a witch, she went to her death rather than join the ranks of men and women who confessed and were thereby spared execution.

In this fictionalised account of that tragedy, we are taken into the heart of the terror that was Salem at that time.

Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and wilful, openly challenging of the small, brutal world in which they live. Her father is a farmer, English in origin, quietly stoical but with a secret history. Her mother is a herbalist, tough but loving, and above all a good mother. Often at odds with each other, Sarah and her mother have a close but also cold relationship, yet it is clear that Martha understands her daughter like no other.

When Martha is accused of witchcraft, and the whisperings in the community escalate, she makes her daughter promise not to stand up for her if the case is taken to court. As Sarah and her brothers are hauled into the prison themselves, the vicious cruelty of the trials becomes apparent, and the Carrier family is faced with the task of battling through the hysteria armed only with the sheer willpower their mother has taught them.

Monday, 27 October 2008


SAbookworm would like to wish all of its Hindu readers a very happy Diwali.
Diwali or Deepawali, which takes place over a period of four days, will be widely celebrated tomorrow (28 October), as lamps are lit and fireworks set off on the night of the dark moon.
This Festival of Lights (the Sanskrit word 'deepawali' means 'row of lights') is the most widely-celebrated Hindu festival, and marks the triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil. It is held to honour life, goodness and community, and is viewed by many as the start of a New Year. The symbolic triumph of light over darkness is meant to illuminate the earth, bring people closer to divinity, restore hope, and empower individuals and communities to commit themselves to good deeds in the year ahead.
Diwali is a people-orientated festival when enmities are forgotten, and family and friends meet to enjoy the festival.
As Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore said of Diwali: “The night is black. Kindle the lamp of love with your life and devotion.”

P.S. As spectacular as fireworks can be, they can also cause serious injury if not used correctly, and be terrifying for animals and small children. Keep animals safely locked up indoors, away from the bright light and the noise, and ensure that children watching fireworks displays are always accompanied by an adult. Older children using fireworks should also always be supervised by an adult, and the instructions on the packaging should be followed precisely. Try to be considerate of neighbours who might find the noise disturbing too.

Thursday, 23 October 2008


I'm always delighted to hear about independent publishers and writers who publish their own work, because this adds such richness to the world of books. Much of what is published by independents wouldn't be considered by any of the big publishing houses, and it would be a huge loss to creative and analytical diversity if this were to be so. In literary ecology (to coin a phrase!), the small is equally as important as the large.
So it was with some excitement that I heard about Seaberg, a small publisher based in Port Elizabeth which focuses on Eastern Cape poetry and children's stories. For it is the kind of work it publishes that gives us insight into local cultures, sentiments and beliefs that we would otherwise never have access to. Not only that, but one of Seabird's authors is award-winning poet, Brian Walter, who has just published a new collection.

Brian Walter

In his first book, Tracks, which was awarded the 2000 Ingrid Jonker Prize, Brian Walter included a sequence of delicate and evocative poems about the Swartkops region of Port Elizabeth – Athol Fugard country – that had already earned him the 1999 Pringle Prize for Poetry.

Since Tracks and his second book, Baakens, an extended meditation on the Baakens Valley in Port Elizabeth as symbol of the landmarks of his youth in apartheid South Africa, Walter has kept faith with the poetic exploration of his grounded landscapes and their real inhabitants. Mousebirds, in its explorations of poetic situations and of poetic language itself, is testimony to the integrity – and the humanity – of this quest.

What is new is the rich vintage of time, the poet's growing assurance in voice, and the authority of experience as he looks back on the years of our young democracy, its promise and its problems, hopes and failures.

There is the older man's questioning of identity in these poems, the search for a metaphor to wed place and poet, as he continues to balance past and present.

Mousebirds is available from Seabird for R90, excluding postage. Please contact the publishers directly on 041 366 2074, or by e-mail at to order.
On a fun note, Seaberg has also just published a new children's title:

A Royal Dog
Les Cawood

This is the story of a black and white wanna-be corgi living in Richmond Hill, Port Elizabeth, who has aspirations of living in a palace like the royal corgis in England do. She searches for a Queen in South Africa in order to realise her dreams. Despite all her efforts she is destined to continue living in the little house on the hill but she discovers, to her surprise, that this life has its own rewards.

Author Les Cawood, born and raised in the Eastern Cape, has lived and taught in Port Elizabeth for many years. She has had an ongoing fascination with stories, and particularly how they are and can be used in classrooms. Her Royal Dog story is the first in a projected series that will include a brace of characters from the Bay, and which will incorporate issues that touch on – in a fun and accessible way – historical, social and environmental responsibility.

Rachel Main, who provides the illustrations, is an artist and art teacher living in Port Elizabeth and delights in drawing for children. This is her third children’s story. Les and Rachel have previously teamed up to produce a story for Colleagiate Junior, called We Are All Winners.

A Royal Dog is available from Seaberg for R60, excluding the costs of postage. Call 041 366 2074 or e-mail at to order.

Reviews supplied by the publisher


Would you like to live the life of a writer, if only for a few days?

Poets and writers Dorian Haarhof, Cathal Lagan, Bob Commin and Brian Walter invite all SAbookworm readers to join them on a four-day writing retreat in the magical Eastern Cape hamlet of Hogsback. The retreat will offer writers and aspirant writers inspirational settings, creative space in which to work, and the personal guidance of four experienced writing mentors.

It will also include talks about writing, and visits to special sites in the area such as Dianna Graham's eco shrine, and the labyrinth in the mountains at The Edge. Writing time will be supported by workshops about editing, as well as poetry readings in the evenings.
When: Monday evening, 24 November to Friday noon, 28 November
Where: Hogsback, Eastern Cape
Cost: The cost for the four-day writer's workshop is R2 350 (this does not include travel, meals or accommodation).
Contact: For more information, contact workshop administrator, Les Foster on 082 868 4265, or by e-mail at

Visit the eco shrine, walk the labyrinth, write in the mountains, read at the fireside. Live the life of a writer.

Saturday, 18 October 2008


Indian debut novelist Aravind Adiga was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2008 for his work The White Tiger in London on Tuesday. The 33-year-old journalist tells "the story of two Indias" in his book, praised by Booker Prize judges' chairman, Michael Portillo, as "being in the tradition of Macbeth with a delicious twist."

Adiga is the third first-time novelist to win the
£50 000 Booker Prize (a staggering R872 000 at today's exchange rate), which is awarded each year for the best novel published in the UK, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. He is also the fourth Indian-born author to win the prize, following Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai.
The five other authors on this year's shortlist included one other Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, and another first-timer, Steve Tolz.
The novel studies the contrast between India's rise as a modern global economy and the lead character, Balram, who comes from crushing rural poverty.

"At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of (Indian) society," says Adiga. "That's what I'm trying to do - it's not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination. The criticism of writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens in the 19th century helped England and France to become better places."
Adiga, who has wanted to become a novelist since he was a boy, was born in Madras (now Chennai), and later moved to Mumbai.


Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, he tells the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life, having nothing but his own wits to help him along.
Born in the dark heart of India, Balram gets a break when he is hired as a driver for his village's wealthiest man, two house Pomeranians (Puddles and Cuddles), and the rich man's (very unlucky) son. From behind the wheel of their Honda City car, Balram's new world is a revelation.
While his peers flip through the pages of Murder Weekly, barter for girls, drink liquor (Thunderbolt) and perpetuate the Great Rooster Coop of Indian society, Balram watches his employers bribe foreign ministers for tax breaks, barter for girls, drink liquor (single-malt whiskey), and play their own role in the Rooster Coop.
Balram learns how to siphon gas, deal with corrupt mechanics, and refill and resell Johnnie Walker Black Label bottles (all but one). He also finds a way out of the Coop, which no-one inside it can perceive.
Balram's eyes penetrate India as few outsiders can: the cockroaches and the call centers; the prostitutes and the worshippers; the ancient and Internet cultures; the water buffalo and the white tiger. And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem, but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.
Review supplied by the publishers

Monday, 13 October 2008


Last week has been dubbed "Black Week" by some, as it saw the global financial crisis deepen and world stock markets continue to plunge in the wake of the banking crisis in the US.
Shortly after the US government authorised a $700 billion "bailout" package (about R6,6 trillion at current exchange rates), the UK followed suit with a similar package of £50 billion (about R830 billion) to rescue perilously indebted financial institutions and to prevent a collapse of the global financial system. Japan was the next to do the same, pumping $45,5 billion (about R429 billion) into that country's economy, while the European Central Bank intervened by not only opening up an unlimited cash lifeline for credit-starved institutions, but by pumping $100 billion into markets in the form of one-day loans.
Here at home, despite the fact that South Africa is "relatively insulated" from the crisis sweeping the US, Europe, Asia and Australia, Friday's trade on the JSE has been called "Freak Out Friday", with the all-share index falling by 3,09%. To put this latest slide into some kind of perspective, in the past five months, 48% has been shaved off the equity of the companies listed on the JSE, representing an almost unbelievable R3 trillion (Source: etv). In the US, the Dow Jones Industrial Index is headed for the lowest level in its 112-year history (Source: The Times).
Traders and analysts from New York to Tokyo have never seen anything like it and, despite the intervention of central banks, the crisis shows no signs of easing.
The beginning of the end

The blame for all of this is being placed at the door of the so-called sub-prime crisis in the US, precipitated by the practice of pooling and selling off packages of default mortgages. Locally, some analysts have said that the impact of this on global markets is simply a "correction", and that it will "bottom out soon".
This may well be true, but what no-one on the inside of the financial system is saying is that this is the beginning of the end for capitalism. The patient may rally; hell, it may even go into remission for a while, but the prognosis, in my opinion, won't change. This isn't an ideological position, it's an observation.
Capitalism has the seeds of its own destruction built into it, and it was just a matter of time before it began to implode.
Some of the issues
In the first instance, it is a system founded on surplus value, the difference between the value of products produced and the input costs required to produce them, particularly the cost of labour. This means that, in order to be successful, the system fundamentally requires that workers should not be paid the full value of their labour. It also means that it is a system based on profit, and not on people, with ramifications too numerous to mention.
Only one of these ramifications is the fact that it creates an huge - and ever-widening - gap between rich and poor, with the rich being not only able to earn profits from doing business, but to invest these profits in public companies and so increase their wealth through dividends and capital gains. These, in turn, can be used to secure an ever-growing asset base that brings in more profits - all while an estimated 1 billion people live of $1 a day or less. And this is without mentioning what the impact that the privatisation of essential and social services has on populations across the globe.
Secondly, the entire financial system is based on the assumption that consistent economic growth is a basic requirement for sustainability and success. It is this idea that is the root cause of the continual "boom and bust" business cycle that is so characteristic of capitalism. Growth demands the development of new markets and high levels of production. If markets become saturated, retract, change or collapse for any reason, the result is a production surplus, which triggers falling prices and, well ... you know what happens.
Growth also requires more and more resources and, on the other side of the coin, creates more and more waste. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that, in a world of limited resources, growth can't continue indefinitely. The oil industry itself , for instance, believes that the world has reached peak oil levels, just as countries that have recently adopted the capitalist model - like China and India - lock into the growth model and require greater resources.
Thirdly, advanced capitalism is characterised by a practice called on-lending, in which financial institutions lend money they have loaned from the Reserve Bank or other investors on to businesses and individuals, with an incremental effect on interest rates. Not only does this mean that the end user inevitably pays a high rate of interest, but that they are paying interest on interest.
Also, in highly de-regulated markets, these loans need only be secured by a percentage of the lending institution's capital value, creating a value "bubble" in which the market value of certain assets and/or asset classes simply does not reflect their true value. This is why no-one can quite figure out how much money is at stake in the so-called sub-prime crisis in the US.
And then, of course, the past two decades have seen the rapid globalisation of capital, which means that some corporations are now worth more than some countries.
It also means that capital can be moved around the world with ease, enabling global corporations to by-pass local labour laws (including minimum wage regulations), and avoid the impact of localised economic, social and political events at will. It also means they can repatriate profits, taking surplus value out of the economies in which it was created, impoverishing local communities, and making wealthy individuals, companies and nations even wealthier still.
That's what the anti-globalisation movement (referred to by activists as the Global Justice Movement) is about - the globalisation of capital, not the globalisation of communications and socio-political interaction.

What's the alternative?
In the face of this, the question on everyone's mind is, if capitalism is collapsing, what then? Conditioned to believe that the current economic system is the only viable one, we can hardly bare to think of what would happen should it fail.
Revolution - despite whatever ANC Youth League President, Julius Malema, might have to say on the subject - simply isn't an option. The fallout for ordinary people everywhere would simply be catastrophic. And we know what Communism proved to be in practice - state capitalism (without even taking into account the attendant socio-political issues).
What is, however, possible is a revolutionary transformation of the economic system, and the window of opportunity is open.
But what kind of transformation?
A simple downshifting from big business to small business, as some have suggested, isn't going to do it. The same issues would still apply. And there's no way of turning a steel foundry, a water utility or an airline into a Mom-and-Pop business.
We simply can't turn back the clock - we have to work with what we have, and aim for ownership of the means of production by the people, not through state institutions, but through equitable participation in ownership and the fair distribution of surplus value. This would require a re-definition of the concept of the "shareholder" and the attribution of appropriate value to labour as a form of capital investment, effectively enabling us to transform capitalist structures without the turmoil of trying to destroy them.
We would also need to collectively re-define the entire concept of consumption, democratically reducing personal and collective consumption to sustainable levels.
This effort could be supported in both urban and rural communities by the creation of a variety of self-organising systems (such as community forums), which would be focused on producing as much of the community's needs locally, and on involving the people in governing themselves at local level.
The role of government, then, would be to manage the macro issues, and to regulate the national economy with this set of values and objectives in mind, bearing in mind that it would be responsible to the people who elected it throughout its term of office, and not just at election time.
At state level, there would ideally also be the opportunity for people to have ownership of state structures, and this is where an extraordinary window of opportunity is currently open. As governments bail out private companies with public funds to stabilise the world economy, it is an opportunity to demand buy-ins rather than bailouts; to demand that, through government, the people be given a share in the institutions that need to be rescued because of poor corporate and financial governance (see how to lobby for this at
South Africa and the global community
Finally, I believe that South Africa is uniquely positioned to bring a new form of governance into the world arena, and that it is our responsibility to get our house into order not only for ourselves, but for this reason.
The cultural concept of ubuntu (African humanity) honours and respects people before money, and puts great value on community. This, together with the kind of structures developed during the struggle years (like community collectives, stokvels, socio-poltical movements etc.) mean that South Africans have embeded in their culture a potentially new way of organising society. Supported by the thinking behind one of the world's most liberal constitutions, which protects the legal and social rights of every individual, they also have a tradition of vigorous and insightful debate that balks at nothing, and results in innovative solutions to a wide range of problems.
What kind of society will you create?

It is time to reclaim individual and collective power from the capitalist system and to create a viable - and vibrant - alternative that will benefit all of the world's people. As former President Nelson Mandela put it, one can never be secure and content if one's neighbour is starving.
It falls to each of us to begin bringing this new society, which I call Communalism, into being. What kind of society will you create?
For a wide range of books that examine socio-political and economic issues from a different angle to the prevailing system, click through to, an independent distributor of titles published by independent publishers, NGOs and individuals (it'll be an eye-opener!).


As global markets continue in a freefall, independent global democratic movement,, is calling on people across the world to support a unique campaign.

Over the next week, extraordinary choices will be made by the world’s most powerful finance ministers, who are meeting to decide on responses to the financial crisis. Avaaz aims to make sure that governments don't just use public money to bail out banks, but that they "claim a share of public ownership in these institutions for our future", and put measures in place to fundamentally fix the wider system:

"Only concerted action by the global community can build a better system, and we can't leave it to financiers - so we're launching an emergency campaign calling on leaders for a global public rescue to save all our economies.
"This is what's needed - a 'buy-in' to financial institutions not a reckless 'bailout' (that means getting public stakes in the banks for our money), massive public investment stimulus to stave off global depression, temporary guarantees of loans and deposits, and strict new regulations to fix this broken system once and for all."

The decisions made this week will shape our lives for years to come, so add your voice to those who have already called for the "Buy-In" solution to the current crisis.
Click through to the Global Public Rescue Campaign to sign, tell your friends and family about the campaign, and let's raise a voice the world's leaders can't ignore.
8,284,896 people have supported Avaaz campaigns since January 2007

Sunday, 12 October 2008


The 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to French novelist, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the first French-born writer to receive the award since 1985.
Speaking to reporters in Paris after the announcement, Le Clézio said he was honored, and that the news had left him feeling "some kind of incredulity, and then some kind of awe, and then some kind of joy and mirth."
His first novel, Le Procès-Verbal (The Deposition), published in 1963, was awarded the Prix Renaudot and brought him immediate recognition. He has since written more than 30 works of fiction, non-fiction and essays, including the novel Désert in 1980, which won the Grand Prix Paul-Morand.
Le Clézio, who has been writing since he was a child, was first seen as a literary rebel, but his later work has been characterised by a softer approach to content and form. His latest novel, Ritournelle de la Faim (Gallimard), was published last week and is written in memory of his mother.
Awarding the €1m (R12,7 million) prize, the Swedish Academy praised Le Clézio as an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization".
The Academy also sparked controversy in the run-up to the award when Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl said that the United States is too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world. According to the US National Endowment of the Arts, fewer that 1% of foreign language books are translated into English for sale in that country.

Thursday, 9 October 2008


The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff was a tough book for me to read, because it goes right to the heart of the institutionalised exploitation and abuse of women and children.

Based on the true story of Anna Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, the Prophet and Leader of the Mormon Church in the late 1800's, it explores two parallel stories that are deftly woven together. The first is a fictionalised account of Anna Eliza's life and the events leading up to and following her "apostasy" from the church, and the second is a mirror-image account of a modern-day nineteenth wife who is accused of murdering her husband.

The Mormon Church or, to use its proper name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was originally founded by Joseph Smith early in the nineteenth century.

Born in 1805, Smith is said to have gone into the woods in 1820 to pray for guidance about which church he should join. It was there that he apparently had the first of the visions on which he later based his doctrine, saying that God and Jesus had appeared to him and told him not to join any of the established religious denominations.

Three years later, he had a vision of an angel called Moroni. By his account this was the resurrected son of Mormon, leader of the Nephites, a group of people who had lived in North America before the Native Americans. The angel instructed him to dig up three golden plates written in reformed hieroglyphics, which would detail the sacred history of these people. This, by the church's account, he did (although the plates were apparently later reclaimed by Moroni). He completed his translation of what was written on them in 1829, and the following year published this as the Book of Mormon , the church's founding text.

Shortly before its publication, Smith claimed that John the Baptist had baptised him, and tasked him with the restoration of the "true church" by preaching the "restored gospel" that had previously been "lost from earth". He set about founding a new church based on this "revelation" and, in around 1835, introduced the doctrine of plural or "celestial" marriage, teaching that those who refused to follow it would be damned. His argument was that he had been "called" to return to the practices of the Old Testament patriarchs.

When he was killed by an angry mob in 1844 as a result of this and other doctrinal issues, he was succeeded by Brigham Young, a member of the church's Council of Twelve Apostles.

It is against this backdrop that Ebershoff's well-crafted narrative unfolds. It simultaneously traces the early life, conversion, marriage and apostasy of Anna Eliza, and the modern-day events that follow the shooting of a prominent member of the Firsts, a breakaway group of Mormons that continues to practice polygamy despite it having been officially renounced by the church in the 1890's.

And herein lies a glimpse into the lives of both early and contemporary Mormons that is both rare and insightful. For the church has always guarded its secrets closely, and the details of the devotional practices of the Saints, as they call themselves, are not generally known.

It is a chilling tale of how religious belief was - and still is - manipulated to convince or force women to enter into plural marriages, and of the absolute power men wield over them and their children in the name of God. What is worthy of note, of course, is that the doctrine of "celestial marriage", together with a number of other doctrines imposed first by Joseph Smith and then by Brigham Young, does not appear in The Book of Mormon.

It is the marriage doctrine above all that Anna Eliza, forced to marry Young by profoundly devious means, questions: "I thought of the men around the country, indeed across the Globe - from the high-hatted Pope in Rome to the turbaned Caliph amongst the Turks - who stood before their people and proclaimed, each in his own language, a set of infallible truths, many similar to those Brigham offered. How can so many men claim the key to Divine Truth? At the time I could not articulate this question or others, not in the manner I have just now on the page. Yet they were forming, in the manner of the pearl, I suppose, grinding into a truth."

Every woman who reads this book will do so with a sense of fear, knowing that Anna Eliza's stand against the Mormon Church's unique brand of patriarchy is far from over.
The power that men wield over women, especially in the religious context, is still immense - and we all know it. And the fact that it is usually covert only serves to make it more dangerous and insidious. We may, as the Virginia Slims ads of the 1960's put it, have "come a long way baby", but the truth is that, for many women, fundamental issues remain unresolved. In gender relations, things are too often not what they seem.

Brigham Young and his wives

P.S. By the way, what is it that makes a book about women written by a man "literary fiction", but a book about women written by a woman "chick lit"? See previous posts on this issue by clicking through to Open Letter to the Media and About That Term "Chick Flick".

Sunday, 5 October 2008


When warriors are leaders, then you will have war. We must raise leaders of peace.
This is the opening line of an address by Leon Shenandoah, the late Chief Tadodaho of the Onondaga Nation, to the General Assembly of the United Nations in October 1985.
It came to mind this week when I read a piece in The New York Times supplement to The Times (Crisis Reveals Leadership Styles, 3 October) about the way in which the American presidential candidates are handling the financial crisis in the US.

John McCain, of course, is a military veteran, and makes much of this in his campaign. And, in true militaristic style, he came out all guns blazing in response to the crisis, prematurely calling for the chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission to be fired. He also made the "big gesture" of suspending his campaign to return to Washington to participate in deliberations on the issue.
In contrast, Barack Obama consulted with Bush administration officials and Democrats in Congress before making clear his position on the bailout package for perilously indebted financial institutions.
Used to the gung-ho "go, go, go" big-boy approach to politics, the American public has been known to interpret this measured, somewhat cerebral and consultative approach as aloof. But perhaps they will come to see something important about Obama and his leadership philosophy in the wake of recent events.
Firstly, he believes in appropriate caution when dealing with such significant national issues - not such a bad thing when the bailout package will see US$700 billion - more than twice SA's GDP - being drawn from the US fiscus to prop up the ailing financial system. In case you missed that, US$700 billion converts into roughly R5,9 trillion, more than double what the entire South Africa economy produces in one year.
Secondly, Obama favours a consultative approach, which is nothing short of downright necessary given the complexity of contemporary socio-economic issues, and which shows respect for the wisdom of the collective rather than entrenching the myth of the "great leader".
Thirdly, although he made his position on the package clear, he did not call on Democrats to vote for it, demonstrating his commitment to free thought and action.
And, finally, as the newspaper puts it, "for all his oratorical skill, he is wary of too much showmanship" (which, in the land that invented smoke and mirrors, can only be a good thing).
This is the man who has criticised the Bush administration's illegal war in Iraq, vowed to bring that war to an end if he is elected President, and committed to engaging with both US allies and adversaries in order to resolve long-standing and potential conflicts. This is the man who, should he be elected President, will save not only the loss of countless lives on both sides of the conflict, but also US$12,5 billion a month by pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain, despite all his election-speak about Iraq, is unlikely to withdraw troops from that country any time soon should he be elected President. The "war" (I call it an invasion) that was meant to last just a few months, and which has now dragged on for years, will simply continue to do so.
Now, I ask you - who would you choose?
Which brings me, albeit circuitously, to Jacob Zuma.
Do we really want a president whose rallying song is Awuleth'umshini wam (Bring me my machine gun), and whose supporters have vowed not only to embark on widespread protest action should he be re-charged for corruption, but to kill for him? Do we want an organisation which, under Zuma's leadership, is vowing the "crush" a breakaway party should one be formed?
Perhaps the parallel between the US presidential race and our own situation is more than just a passing one. Kgalema Motlanthe is, in many ways, somewhat like Barack Obama. He is proving to be an approachable leader with a sensible, measured approach; a peace-maker and unifier; and a man committed to consultative governance (within the framework of ANC policy, needless to say). The difference, of course, is that Americans get to elect their president and we don't.
So, with the responsibility of this decision in its hands, who will the ANC choose on behalf of the people, given that it's likely to remain in the majority in parliament after the 2009 election? The warrior or the man of peace?

Thursday, 2 October 2008


World Animal Week kicks off this Saturday, 4 October, with World Animal Day celebrations across the world. On the Catholic calendar this is also the saint's day of Francis of Assisi, the revered holy man whose connection with animals was so extraordinary that it is said birds would sit still to hear him speak.

In honour of this day, the The World Society for the Protection of Animals is calling on animal lovers far and wide to sign its petition for a Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare. The society is aiming to present 10 million signatures in support of the declaration to the United Nations, and so far has nearly 1,7 million.

This effort is being co-ordinated through the WSPA's Animals Matter to Me campaign. The largest global animal welfare initiative ever, it unites the entire animal welfare movement behind one strategic goal - global recognition that animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and suffering.

This may seem self-evident, but it's far from that. Human rights are entrenched in democratic constitutions everywhere, but there is no similar protection for animals, who arguably need it more as they can't speak for themselves.
This initiative - and your support for it - is desperately needed, as the scale of animal suffering in the world today is unprecedented. For example:
  • Around 60 billion farm animals are used around the world every year to produce meat, milk and eggs. The majority are raised in industrial farming systems where their welfare needs are not met, and they often suffer neglect and/or cruelty.
  • Globally, there are some 600 million dogs, and a similar number of cats, of which an estimated 80% are stray or unwanted.
  • The illegal and often inhumane trade in wildlife and wildlife parts is a soaring black market worth $10 billion a year, exceeded only by arms and drug smuggling. Millions of wild animals are killed, captured or traded inhumanely in this appalling "business".
  • To kill the animals for the fur trade without damaging their pelts, trappers usually strangle, beat, or stomp them to death. Animals on fur farms may be gassed, electrocuted, poisoned with strychnine, or have their necks snapped. These methods are not 100 percent effective and some animals "wake up" while being skinned.
  • Animals are also affected on a huge scale by natural disasters, though seldom considered.

With all of this going on, can you stay silent? Take a few minutes to add your signature to the petition for a Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare - and be part of the movement to create a more humane world.

For further information on animal cruelty in the fur trade, see Fur is Dead.
Image: St Francis of Assisi speaking to birds: Fresco, Giotto, Basilica San Francesco, Assisi


On a lighter note, I'm reminded of one of my favourite books about animals, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I read this book when I was about fourteen, and was so struck by it that one of the very first overseas destinations I set out to visit when I was a laaitie was Corfu, where the book is set.

It tells the story of the five years Durrell spent on the island from the age of ten, and of the antics of a rather, well, antic family. Over the course of their stay in a number of villas of various colours, they acquire a motley collection of friends, and succumb utterly to Corfu's rustic charm. And, of course, they also acquire animals - a posse of dogs that just keeps expanding, an owl, some magpies, several snakes and a tortoise - and that's just the beginning. This is all the perfect recipe for hilarious family scenes, arguments and incidents; lively observations of the natural environment, and loads of local colour.
Read it for a joyful reminder of everything animals bring into our lives.