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Elysium: South Africa Light

Elysium-imax-poster-matt-damonLast night, I watched Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction opus Elysium, which was about as underwhelming as his previous work, “District 9.”

Though most American viewers will miss it, it’s impossible to watch Elysium without thinking of South Africa. Elysium is the name of a giant gated community in the sky that we mostly don’t get to see. The residents of Elysium live in huge mansions, complete with swimming pools and trimmed lawns. Most salient to the story is their access to medical care which allows them to live forever.

Elysium is propped up by a single corporation, which manufactures robots for use on Elysium as servants, and as security on Earth below. Our hero Max is a shanty town dweller and former criminal who works on an assembly ling of one of the factories. He gets hit with a lethal dose of radioactivity, and must get to Elysium to get medical care or die in five days.

Fine. What’s striking is all of the references to South Africa’s apartheid government, which propped up state protected private monopolies to keep and consolidate power for the white minority, while insuring a steady flow of cheap and disposable labor.

Max’s nemesis is the hulking Kruger, the only obvious South African of the film. We see him enjoying African BBQ and drinking Castle Lager, an obvious allusion to the South African 32 Battalion, sent to fight the communists in Angola and along the Namibian border during the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, his spaceship (?) has a (current) South African flag emblazoned on it.

The most despicable character of the film is dressed up to emulate IMF chairman Christine LaGarde. Oddly, Ms. LaGarde has deviated from her more mundane duties of monetary policy and gone militaristic, happily shooting down ships filled with crippled children looking for medical care.

In the end, the computer controlled hegemony of Elysium is toppled, though, not through the collective uprising and political struggle of the poor majority, but through the nameless efforts of a smuggler. Blomkamp, for all his detailed references to South Africa’s history, delivers it a cheap shot by excluding this important detail.

Of interest, though, is the final move from a designed state protected private economy, to a presumably socialist economy, where health care is available for all. While I like the move to freely available and quality health care for all, it’s odd that the film doesn’t do much to address how the economy is to move forward.

But the economic questions are the most perplexing of the movie, but then the economy of the South African apartheid government and even the present government are perhaps equally bizarre. Why would even the most wealthy concentrate all their wealth into a single, non-competitive space? We can assume that the wealthy in Elysium are obtaining socialist kick backs from their oppressive form of government, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that someone on Elysium wouldn’t go it alone and seek other opportunities. In this sense, the people are Elysium are at least as oppressed as those on Earth. You’d wonder how they’d put up with it. Wouldn’t someone get bored?

Also, with so many humans on Earth, you’d assume that someone might think of this as a major opportunity for investment. It’s pretty clear that the people on Elysium don’t have to use cash, but on Earth, the potential for grass roots markets seems limitless. One of the main characters of the film has tapped into the market of smuggling people up to Elysium for medical care. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive on Earth. Wouldn’t someone on Elysium try to tap into this, reacting to market demand and helping people at the same time? This was certainly the story in expanding access to HIV antiretrovirals in Africa (in a really, really simple sense, don’t flame me, man!). There’s no reason to assume the same wouldn’t play out here.

But that’s asking too much, and I digress.

Elysium’s two dimensionality is really what hobbles the film. Like District 9, what could have been a really clever allegory for unequal societies and the structural problems which produce and support them, Elysium fades off into a bland world of polarized, Hollywood science fiction. It fails to explore how humans push back against inequality and fails to educate its audience as to what it all means. Blomkamp clearly understands the issues. Hopefully, he’ll deliver the goods next time.

Slams against Mandela expose the racist underbelly of the United States

South Africa /Police op.in Soweto 1986.And what an underbelly it is. By no surprise, the interweb and right wing America have taken it upon themselves to bash one of history’s great heroes. Apparently, he’s a communist, a terrorist and a racist.

Now, I’m not going to do a run through of all the ridiculous vitriol and ignorance that exists all over the internet. I am going to call them out and ask: Do you really have any comprehension of how disgusting the apartheid system was?

The South African government prior to the fall of apartheid was a brutal, technologically sophisticated, repressed and unforgiving system designed for the sole purpose of marginalizing a black majority, preserving wealth and opportunities for a minority, and insuring a constant flow of cheap labor to support a blood economy. It was violent and systematic. Perhaps the only historical example that might have been more efficient and more effective would be that of the Nazi Holocaust.

The history of the use of technology to support apartheid, which the white minority required to effectively maintain control can be found here.

The significance of the role of U.S. computers in S.A. [was] not restricted to their use by repressive agencies of the government. [Leo80]
It is likely that the tool which made the most crucial contribution to the system of apartheid was the computerized population register. The Plural Affairs Department maintained the passbook system on the more than twenty five million Africans defined as black. These records were all kept electronically on British-made ICL hardware. The Department of the Interior maintained the “Book of Life” files on the other seven million citizens classified as non-blacks using an IBM hardware system. The passbook records included data on “racial classification”, name, sex, date of birth, residence, photo, marital status, drivers license, dates of departure from and return to the country, place of work or study, and fingerprints. One South African described the population register at work as,

The main purpose of the population registry was administration of the influx control system, a system which channeled needed black workers into the labor force to be exploited, and confined others to the desolate homelands. The passbooks, which every black person was automatically given at the age of sixteen, coupled with the computer database, guaranteed one’s instant identification and one’s history of government opposition. If these passbooks were properly endorsed, the owner had the right to work or live in “white areas”, and lack of these endorsements or failure to produce the passbook resulted in arrest and jail. Many were detained for months at a time without a trial and their families were not given notification of their whereabouts.

Frightening. Our apartheid system here in the states appears rather primitive in comparison (though equally horrific).

There is no reason to defend Mandela’s incredible record. Plenty of other people have already done so. However, to denounce Mandela as a “terrorist” and a “racist” is not only completely stupid, but also gives apartheid a free pass. Giving apartheid a pass also allows that racism is acceptable, and marginalizing and exploiting people based on their genetic profile is allowable. If the current flurry of ignorance on the internet is any indication, bigotry and racism are alive and well in the United States, and more than a few people would happily institutionalize it once more.

Fuck.
That.

Completely Obvious yet Wholly Unanswered Questions about the Westgate Mall Attack in Kenya

Africa-Nairobi-Westgate-AttackA friend just passed me this, but I figured I’d share it here because it borders on the absurd. For those who don’t know, or have forgotten, the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, a weekend destination for expats and Kenyans alike, was attacked by four (or more?) indivduals linked to Somali terror group, Al Shabab. An estimated 70 people were killed and scores more injured, though noone really knows. We think the killers are dead. Just about the only thing we do know, is that the Kenyan military raized the building and then pocketed as many cell phones and as much liquor as they could.

The Kenyan government has been mostly silent on the issue. The Wikipedia page is remarkably detailed, but the facts appear to be mostly speculation. It’s unclear as to whether the government is deliberately withholding information or if the GOK simply doesn’t know anything at all. Either way, not much in Nairobi has changed since the recent fire at Jomo Kenyatta airport and the Westgate attacks. The security guards will look a little deeper in your bags. It’s going to be interesting to see how Kenya deals with it’s serious growing pains.

This past week when I was there, the City of Nairobi had finally installed traffic lights, complete with cameras that will catch lawbreakers and fine them by mail. I’m not sure, however, that the Kenyan Post is equipped to get the notices to the drivers’ homes. Kenyan has amazing potential, but until it solves these basic infrastructural problems, it’s going to be slow going. They are trying though, I think.

These are a selection from 85 questions on this Google Doc.

Questions Kenyan Citizens want answered by their government concerning the Westgate attack

1. How many people are still unaccounted for?
2. How many terrorists were involved in the attack? Are all accounted for[d]?
3. What of reports of at least one terrorist escaping from Westgate? Again, Amb Amina Mohammed in her Al Jazeera English interview[e] suggested some might have hidden among hostages and escaped. Who were the people arrested in JKIA? Were any of them in Westgate? Will any arrested terrorists be put on trial here or handed over to other states?
4. Are any terrorists loose in the city who are yet to be captured?
5. Will there be an inquiry into the attack to identify potential improvements to intelligence and security? What powers of investigative authority will the group doing the inquiry be given?
6. Was fire on terrace started by terrorists to burn hostages and swap identities? How many escaped?
7. Will the findings be made public after the investigations?
8. Who owns the Westgate Mall building? Have they been taken in for questioning[h]?
9. There are reports of the attackers renting a store at the mall. Are these reports true and is the landlord being pursued for information on the same? Have they arrested the staff for questioning?
10. Ten suspect arrested for questioning. Are they part of the attackers? Are we still safe?
11. In the last government there were many rumours that Kenyan Passports and Id’s were being sold 300,000 a pop. Is it possible to inspect, record how many of these were undeserving recall them and deport or arrest those who own them. Also is it possible to use this evidence to jail those responsible for selling our country?
12. Was the CCTV footage made available to the police[j][k]?
13. How many hostage takers have been killed?
14. Are all our questions actually going to be answered?
15. Samantha Lewthwaite has been to Kenya twice. In 2011 and Last year. How did she stroll through our airports undetected?? She’s been on FBI’s and Interpol’s watchlist since 20[t]
16. Why won’t they tell us how many hostages were rescued or where they were taken??? why so much secrecy!
17. So Uhuru said that security would be improved after the attack, why is it that I walked in town today and didn’t see a single policeman aside from traffic policemen? where are the photos of the dead terrorists? Why do the governments numbers contradict with those of the Red Cross? Why are they treating us like 8 year old children with all these differing answers? Why isn’t security heightened in universities? Why are g4s watchmen still manning large institutions? Are our borders secure? Why deny that there was a woman leading the attack yet victims of the attack saw a woman? Where is the security? I expected the government to take this matter seriously! ?
18. After all the tragedies we have had, why is it still not possible to have a clear structure and system of co-ordination, management, rescue, and disaster resource distribution from 0 seconds? → What disaster response planning & provisions by GoK are in place generally? Which government entities are involved / have responsibilities in this area?
19. There has been a ridiculous increase in crime lately, and we are reeling from one crisis to to another…from airports burning, car jackings, armed robberies and now mall attacks and yet the police don’t seem prepared or able to deal with these issues, how come we still have the same people in office? should we have qualified people running the show?
20. If there were 15 attackers and and only 5 were killed where are the rest? why the conflicting information from government on number of attackers etc?
21. Can we finally stop spending on petty things or things that can wait and invest in training and equipping our police and security operatives and not just to deal with political issues but to truly respond to crime and terrorism

Do Americans know that there are cities in Africa?

I’m convinced that they do not.

Two articles have appeared in the NYT in the past week on development. One dealt with agriculture in South America, and the other with power and electricity.

The first, “Iowa in the Amazon,” was written by Stephen Porder, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown. He write on soy beam farming in Brazil:

Despite what you might hear at your local farmers’ market or Whole Foods, not all big farms are bad. Nor are all small organic farms sustainable. They may produce high-quality food, but if they don’t produce a lot of calories per acre, they are doing little to help increase the global food supply. How we increase this supply over the next few decades will determine agriculture’s sustainability. It’s worth exploring why this is so, because sustainable food production is a fundamental human need. Getting it right will require us to carefully assess the consequences of where and how we farm.

Which is a reasonable position to take. Farming is (and has always been) about maximizing yield from a limited amount of land. The responses to his article are telling, most notably this one:

“Highly mechanized farms in the poor countries of the world create numerous environmental and social problems. These mega-farms rely on large quantities of relatively cheap fossil fuels as well as pesticides that contaminate water, soil, food and people.”

Also, a reasonable position. Now, I’m willing to entertain the costs of large scale, efficient farming, but the comments suggest that readers haven’t considered the costs of small scale agriculture, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m thinking that the American readers believe that a lady cultivating maize in her yard in Kenya, is the same as a household garden in the United States. It is not.

Small scale farmers face massive levels of risk on a daily basis. A poor rainy season could devastate the small crop intended to provide sustenance and livelihood for a likely growing family. Without developed systems of production, transportation and market efficiency, small holder farms have no way to supplement major crop losses. Thus, efforts which seek to exclusively bolster this sector overlook the importance of 1) large scale agriculture as a buffer against individual crop losses 2) transportation (roads) development which links producers to markets (and vice versa) and 3) how the labor intensive and inefficient nature of small scale agriculture impedes participation in other economic activities.

I fear that Americans have an image of Africa which doesn’t fit the realities on the ground and I fear that we in the development world are somewhat guilty for propagating it. Pictures of happy though poor maize producing households are great for getting us to donate to microcredit causes (for example) romanticize rural poverty, but risk whitewashing the precarious nature of this lifestyle.

The truth is, that African urbanization is occurring at the fastest pace that humanity has ever seen. Malawi’s cities grow by more than 6% per year, and by 2050, nearly 60% of Africans will live in cities. African cities are so huge as the make NYC seem like a small hamlet. Lagos, Nigeria has 21 million people.

Though many urban dwellers are growing crops in the cities, it is impossible to assume that small holder agriculture alone can possibly support hundreds of millions of non-crop producing Africans. Though we may dislike images of tractors moving through giant African farms, the reality is that Africa is facing the same challenges we did during our own development booms. Emphasizing efficiency of production at all levels should be the biggest item on the agenda.

As for energy, I’ll leave to reader to explore the vitriolic nature of the comments on this piece in the times, that had the gall to suggest that developing countries, facing increasing demand for stable sources of power, might simply consider domestically abundant coal as one of many options. The readers are apparently under the impression that the only energy requirement that Africa needs is for cooking. Apparently, they’ve never experienced a blackout in Nairobi.

Though I’m no coal fan, African countries have to consider their needs and weigh out the costs and benefits of the methods of addressing them.

Nairobi for a day (I think I will spend more time on a plane)

I’m back in Nairobi for a day. I think that I will have spent more time on airplanes that in Nairobi on this trip. It’s a pretty silly way to do business, but I wanted to be back home in time for Thanksgiving so I couldn’t extend it.

My friend Tirus picked me up from the airport. I mean, I pay him, but he’s still my friend. (Things are always quite gray in Africa.)

After the fire, the Kenyatta airport is still being run like patchwork, but it was the fastest that I’ve ever gotten through customs. Departures are routed through a giant tent. Arrivals have to go to a different part of the airport. It used to be that the two mixed, which created awful congestion throughout the airport. I think the fire actually did Kenya a favor. It’s still unclear when construction on the new terminal will begin.

It was interesting hearing Tirus recount his close call with the Westgate Mall attack. Apparently he was at Westgate relaxing and looking trough his phone not but an hour before the guns started to fire. Turns out it only took four guys to kill more than 70 people and wound nearly 200. Awful.

The ICC trials of the President and Vice President of Kenya are still news here. Actually, they are still news everywhere. Thinking about it, Kenya is in the American news on a daily basis. I think it might be the only African country that is.

I don’t know how the trials can proceed. Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s actions during the 2007 post-election violence were despicable, but it’s going to be rather difficult to successfully prosecute and sitting head of state, and maintain credibility for a struggling African country and a fledgling government. The ICC could actually cause more damage in the long term by pursuing the case, at least while Kenyatta is in power.

More later….. time for breakfast at the Seventh Day Adventist house. The claim to encourage “health living” by eschewing meat, spices and caffeine but the large amounts of salt in the food at this hotel are borderline dangerous!

What I’m Reading Now

A couple of weeks ago, I was mulling over writing a book. Now that I’m fully disoriented from the ASTMH meetings and the submission of a giant NSF grant, I can’t really put my head together well enough to get it going.

So maybe I’ll briefly write about other peoples’ books instead.

As always, I’m reading several books at once. I’m usually horribly bad at finishing anything at all, and books are no exception. Right now, I’ve got the following on my desk:

cover-davis-quammen-spillover-book1. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (David Quammen, 2012) - Many human diseases actually have their origins in animals. HIV moved from primates to humans. All human influenzas are diseases of animals. Awful infections like ebola and nipah virus are, in fact, bat diseases. However, the story isn’t as simple as humans simply becoming infected through contact with animals. Complex dynamics of inter-species transmission can create a situation where a pathogen turns from benign to deadly. The future of infectious threats requires that we understand these dynamics and prepare for them, particularly as mankind urbanizes and human movement intensifies. A great and easy to read work that doesn’t sacrifice details. Highly recommended.

2. Why Africa is Poor and What Africans Can Do About It (Greg Mills, 2010) - A truly sensible assessment of the roots of Africa’s economic and development problems. Instead of looking backward to colonialism and ambiguous global threats, Mills picks apart what’s wrong with modern African states and pulls no punches. The solutions presented, however, mostly rely on sacking most of the present leaders of African states, a tall order for some places. Even more odd, however, is the glaring absence of the structural adjustment era which attempted to free African states from crushing bureaucracy by dismantling typical state provisions like health care and schools. A great read, though.

3. The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality (Angus Deaton, 2013) Though the 20th century saw incredible advances in living conditions, sanitation and medical technologies which have extended and improved the quality of human life, the benefits have not been uniform. Deaton offers that inequality is not a given, but rather a consequence of progress. It is the case that health disparities between social groups are highly correlated with economic inequality. Health disparities, a consequence of systems which encourage political and social inequality, in turn exacerbate the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Another great and easy read.

exodus4. Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (Paul Collier, 2013) Economist Paul Collier takes on modern human migration, the extent of which the world has never seen before. He explores the political problems behind migration, the process by which people move from migrants to immigrants to citizens and the political implications of newly pluralistic states and an economically integrated world.

5. Asian Industrialization and Africa: Studies in Policy and Alternative to Structural Adjustment (Edited by Howard Stein, 1995) - It’s pretty much what the title says. There are several chapters tracking Asia’s move from a disastrous formerly colonized, agrarian area and poverty stricken area of the world to a powerhouse of industrial development and a major success story. African countries, however, have failed to develop as quickly, some even regressing economically during the 80’s and 90’s. The specific policies that allowed Asia’s success are contrasted with Africa’s failures and recommendations are offered to foster pro-active development in Africa. Asian policies, which were often protectionist and required the active hand of government but worked well at their particular stage of development, were at odds with those recommended during the structural adjustment era which recommended full privatization and haphazard relaxation of government controls.

What the hell was I going to write about?

I can’t remember, but it was one of three things:

1. To complain about Dambisa Moyo’s 2009 book Dead Aid, which I finally got around to reading. Basically, she says that Africa should give up on Western backed “aid” (she makes no effort to distinguish between different types of aid, and the contexts under which it is given), and do three things: 1) Have the west give African countries 5 years to phase out “aid” 2) Let China build all of Africa’s infrastructure for them (rather than the West) 3) Borrow money from private capital markets (she used to work for Goldman Sachs).

Given it’s haphazard treatment of details, it’s a pretty comedic book, but she gets accolades from right wingers who hate giving money to poor people. If you merely replace “aid” with the word “food stamps,” you’ll end up with the basic message of the American Tea Party: any amount of free stuff creates a “culture of dependence.” I’m sure she’s more educated and articulate than her book would suggest, but it appears that she is less concerned with writing useful policy analysis, and more concerned with waving a wide brush so she can raise her status as a celebrity.

While I don’t agree with everything Bill Easterly writes, he gives the subject a much better treatment.

2) To write about realism and caricature in Breaking Bad, or at least to note that I never get to see TV shows until after they are cancelled.

3) To reflect on the conservatism of punk rock music. I was listening back to some 80’s hardcore and remembering how horribly conservative a lot of this was. They had more rules on behavior than the Taliban (an inappropriate joke, but you get the idea…). Exactly what were they rebelling against, and what were they offering? Even Reagan was less uptight. A lot of us came out of some really chaotic situations, it’s odd (or maybe expected) that we’d gravitate toward dogma. Still, this stuff is no fun at all!

4) To complain about my low salary and uncertain prospects to make more money. This would make a horribly uninteresting post, however.

For now, though, here’s a trailer from a new movie on Punk from Southern Africa.

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