Archive for September, 2007


September 28, 2007

A quick post before hitting the road. Here in SA I understand just enough to get very confused. And nothing confuses and frustrates me more than the Mugabe argument. It’s not really an argument; I just listen, speechless. There was a representative example last night in a bar with one black guy baffling the hell out of a couple white people, all but me South African. It starts very reasonably. Everyone agrees he’s a madman, maybe with “syphilis of the brain.”

Then the black guy says BUT! He may be an intelligent madman. With obvious relish, he quotes Mugabe’s speech at the U.N. (to Bush something like “everyone thinks you’re a god but not me” A god?) as if bashing the U.S. and Britain was an act of courage rather than self-preservation. And it is self-preservation since the language, his constant talk of colonialism, and probably also the idea of an African talking tough on the world stage fires people up here.

More importantly the guy was reluctant to blame Mugabe for the current state of Zimbabwe. Yes Mugabe is at fault, but also there have been sanctions and the U.K.’s failure to come through on its land reform promises somewhere in the 1990s and something the U.S. did in the 1980s. And what’s wrong with Mugabe trying to keep prices low so that the poor Zimbabweans people can afford food? At this point I made my one comment: if Mugabe really had his people’s interests at heart he might stand in fair elections in March. This evoked a derisive laugh. Clearly no one except me is naïve enough to suggest that, but, again, it’s not Mugabe’s fault. In 2003, the guy explained, election monitors came and wily Mugabe sent them to a resort at Victoria Falls where they partied the election away, ignoring their duty to make sure Mugabe didn’t steal the election!


You need a spoon!

September 27, 2007

Over the past few days I’ve been hanging out in the Cape Flats townships chatting with entrepreneurs. They are barbers and craftspeople, designers and owners of spaza shops (improvised, minimal bodegas). One sparky woman, Janine, does a crashing trade in beaded cutlery, spoons and cake cutters decorated with wire and plastic beads. After a few outings at craft festivals she opened a stand selling decorated spoons at the a tourist-centric mall downtown, and has hired several women in her neighborhood to press her drill presses and thread the beads onto dishwasher safe wire. Her slogan: Everybody needs a spoon!


Other enterprises seemed less promising. One guy has a gallery selling his paintings and papier-mache and tin can sculpture out of his shack in Manenberg, ground zero of Cape Town’s booming gangland. He touted one of his paintings as the ‘Black Mona Lisa.’ More typical is a barber who rents out a chair and mirror in someone else’s shop. Head above water, he was confused about where he could go next, how to move towards owning his own place.


Everyone spoke about the associations. Trade and support groups are as South African as biltong and sunshine. Even the smallest have written constitutions. In the spirit of Ubuntu, these groups’ missions might include help filling out forms or coaching in marketing or business planning. Occasionally some can arrange a small loan. Described with words like ‘affirmation’ and ‘support’ they’re also hotbeds of kvetching and camaraderie, excuses to get out of the house. The most common complaint I heard is lack of access to money.

Janine, the canniest and most driven entrepreneur I met, didn’t talk about needing money or a beaded cutlery trade association (though surely one exists.) She talked about working seven days a week. She started the business with R500, ($70 give or take) a few years ago after learning about beaded cutlery at church. The man in her life had run off and she had a baby daughter so she just started running. Several years later she claims annual revenues of several hundred thousand rand, still running it out of her garage in a depressed neighborhood. She is the most ‘American’ of the entrepreneurs, a future tycoon of beaded cutlery.

In a place where everyone has a difficult life story her pluck seems almost genetically-borne. She criticized South Africans for being lazy compared to Senegalese and Congolese immigrants. When I suggested that immigrants everywhere have to work hard to succeed she countered that back home “They don’t have free health care.” Anyone could benefit from something like her energy, but with so much emphasis on collective achievement and consensus here, ideas beyond sheer gumption need a hearing as well.

Tomorrow morning I leave on the long drive to Jo’Burg. Stay tuned for posts from South Africa’s megacity.


September 24, 2007

The best advice I’ve heard since arriving was ‘Listen to the radio.’ I brought a fancy shortwave thinking that the BBC World Service would be a constant companion. But I haven’t tuned in to London’s Call. Instead I’ve grown fond of SAFM, “South Africa’s Information Leader.”

SAFM has an excellent business news show daily at six p.m. but I mostly listen for the call-in shows. In the U.S. the red/blue split is so pervasive I had forgotten it does not encompass the entire spectrum of conceivable political thought. As on NPR, the hosts’ buttery voices convey engaged curiosity but they entertain a diversity of opinion that does not get aired back home. One recent guest was a woman’s activist advocating decriminalizing prostitution in highly regulated and controlled settings as New Zealand has done. She said it not only reduced disease transmission but also cut down on prostitution as a whole. It was a relatively common view that might be called secular aid worker.

One caller reasonably pointed out that a system that works in New Zealand where people have better jobs and more money was not relevant for South Africa. Then it got weirder. Another caller found the N.Z. suggestion so outrageous that he suggested teaching prostitution in schools as a profession like “engineering” and “law.” One man phoned in with more of a comment than a suggestion. He said men who sleep with prostitutes have “debased minds.” Even overlooking the quirks of language, the only American I can imagine saying that would be a senator on the cusp of a solicitation bust.

As with so much in South Africa, the station takes its social mission seriously. It has hosted earnest discussions on depression, a stigmatized topic. I’ve also heard debates on the traditional Zulu practice of virginity inspections on girls, a recently contentious issue, abhorred by human rights activists. On a show about the dignity of school uniforms a woman extended the trope to all uniforms and called for a ban on fat police. If it sounds like a freak show that’s my fault. Aside from issues surrounding race, which are alluded to mainly in euphemism, I think it’s as honest a forum for this complex country as one is likely to find.


September 24, 2007

The other day I left my room in search of a sandwich and a glass of wine. For the last few weeks I’ve been staying in a scruffy student neighborhood across the tracks from a strip of restaurants and bars. It was about 7 in the evening and right outside the passage under the tracks were three guys working over a fourth and talking in an African language I couldn’t identify. The victim was on his hands and knees; he wasn’t being mugged, he was being beaten up as if he knew some important information or was dating the wrong guy’s sister. The guys doing the beating saw me and didn’t mind. They didn’t raise their voices or look at me again; they just kept pummeling the guy who was holding himself above the ground with his armed locked.

What would a brave man have done here? I walked into the tunnel and passing a black man in a Rasta hat stopped him and told him about the fight at the other end. He looked at me as if I had asked him for some spare change. Continuing up the steps, he walked out glanced briefly to his left and as far as I could see kept walking. I continued on and found my dinner in a café that by the look of it could have been in any college town on earth.

People here frequently talk about the first world/third world divide in Cape Town and South Africa. That means more than being able to get a decent cappuccino. You can find one almost anywhere there’s a concentration of NGO workers. In Cape Town the divide is more acute. It comes from different cultures living here simultaneously one oppressing the others as it built modern and heavily guarded infrastructure. Even as the cultures have begun a long desegregation process, people accustomed to security guard it tightly, so students work on laptops in a gated café but they walk quickly when they leave.


September 21, 2007

$1,000 actually can change more than four people’s lives. The marvelous organization Operation Smile performs operations mending children’s cleft palates. Donating an operation costs $240.

I had a wonderful moment of culinary diplomacy today. Early for a meeting, I spent a half hour hanging out at the mall. The malls here look like those in the U.S. but this one had a small store devoted to biltong. Biltong, dehydrated meat, salted and spiced, is a national obsession. To call it jerky would be an injustice. After a bite of biltong a white fringe of meat fiber sticks out from the carcass.

Despite the South African regard for biltong, I was surprised to find a shop full of dried meat: slabs hanging over shelves and long circular tubes of the stuff displayed in baskets. This amid the bland clothing shops and greeting card outlets! I’ve been enjoying biltong since the day I arrived but it’s always been the convenience store variety. This was as authentic as one’s likely to find in a mall. They even had Baby Biltong. It’s softer, they said, and probably good for teething. I bought pieces of beef, springbok and ostrich and walked around the mall trailing spicy air, self-impressed by my own restraint.

Life changing money?

September 21, 2007

Daytime TV aficionados among you might have caught me last week on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Before going on I had the semi-realistic hope of winning what’s sometimes called life-changing money. It didn’t happen. I won almost enough to buy a round trip ticket from JFK to Cape Town.

The money didn’t change my life. Could it change someone else’s? Probably not. The other day I visited an NGO that distributes annual grants of about $15,000 to impoverished rural communities for initiatives like youth programs or AIDS counseling. (I plan to visit one of the communities soon.) They’ve been giving out those grants to some villages for over a decade. Some programs have been useful in promoting well- being or averting collective disaster, even so the director didn’t even try to portray them as as transformational. The program’s chief often sees the local people elected to oversee the funding climbing into business and political leadership positions in their areas after an investment of thousands of dollars and years of collaboration. One begins to see why development work is so vexing; it requires planting seeds for trees that may be fruitful in a few decades.

So what to do with $1,000? There are an endless number of organizations that would take the money. That’s probably the smart thing to do. Giving out even $1,000 requires someone to make sure it doesn’t instantly disappear into a flash cell phone and a loan shark payment. My initial inclination would be to loan it to someone who wanted to start a business but I’ve heard of almost no success from similar attempts by professionals. As the world over, money here is slippery.

Culinary diplomacy

September 19, 2007

One thing I didn’t expect in South Africa was the portions. This morning I ordered a Steak Gatsby, a hero, and got a sandwich longer than my forearm and three times as thick stuffed with meat, potatoes and a few shreds of lettuce. Correct that. I actually ordered a half Gatsby and paid about $3.50 for it. The other day I ordered a fruit salad and got a Goliath’s goblet of fruit topped with three scoops of ice cream. I felt like a Frenchman in Dallas.

I’m a believer in culinary diplomacy, that one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get to know another culture is through its food. In this respect South Africa has not been my most successful trip. If the supermarkets are any guide, more and more the country eats like the English did fifteen years ago, filling bland food, heavy on the carbohydrates, whether it be macaroni or more traditional porridges. The less money the people have the more emphasis is on food that will fill you up, as if it was cement for an internal foundation. At one of the tourist restaurants I ate a kudu steak, a type of antelope. It was tasty, but not representative.

That’s not cricket

September 17, 2007

Here’s a riff I wrote that won’t see print.

That’s not cricket
You might know of cricket as baseball’s weird ancestor, a big deal in the Antipodes and a bloodless surrogate for nuclear war in south Asia. At five days, a test-match takes longer than nuclear war.

Americans have a famous antipathy to cricket, but the sport’s global overlords are sexing the sport up American style, pushing a newer hipper, faster cricket to lure in teenagers and keep them watching. First played in 2003, South Africa is now hosting the first world championship of this Red Bull drenched variation known as Twenty20. Purists disdain its near absolute emphasis on offense and fear it will usurp their glacial game, but international cricket likes what it sees: young fans and crowded stadiums.

Cricket matches consist of overs (innings) where the bowler (pitcher) throws the ball six times and the batsmen (batters) try and hit it where the fielders ain’t, then run. In Twenty20 matches each team bats for twenty overs. But there can be fewer if the bowlers manage to nail the wicket, a structure of sticks poking out of the ground behind the batsmen, enough times. In Twenty20, a team bats all of its overs consecutively a batting fest known as an inning, so when the second team gets their chance they know exactly how many runs (runs) they need to win.


Warm ups

Since batting is so much about protecting the wicket from the bowler, as far as I could gather at a recent match the possibility that a team will go down on wickets in only twenty overs is remote compared with the hundreds of overs of the five day test matches or the fifty overs per side typical of the day-long matches. With a couple other rules designed to boost offense and speed up play, the Twenty20 game becomes a slugfest, sort of as if batters in a certain other sport had five strikes to work with.

In only a few years, Twenty20’s gimmickry has set a global fire. In the midst of the current world championship, a major new Twenty20 tournament was announced in India and it has a growing slice of the professional competition in the U.K. Traditionalists are chicken-littling over this bastardization in the direst terms. “Twenty20 is the equivalent of the gas chamber for a bowler,” wrote a columnist in the U.K.’s conservative Daily Telegraph. “If the game’s future evolves entirely around Twenty20, why would any young, talented cricketer want to become one?”

Befitting a new X-treme version of any sport, the organizers have made it as loud and tacky as possible. Twenty20 is descended from the sort of pandering, fan-pleasing spectacles that invade the NBA All-Star break, slam dunking the sport’s gentility. At the game I attended in Cape Town, cheerleaders in sports bras and camo pants pranced for the crowd with a mysterious character named Dr. Beat who looked like Lenny Kravitz and danced like a disco monster. The DJ couldn’t spin enough big house beats and a retrofitted version of unmourned Tag Team hit Whoomp There It Is with lyrics now Whoomp There’s a Six. (A six is the cricket equivalent of a home run and in Twenty20 seemed to happen every sixth pitch.) The planners matched the theme song with a tedious five years ago slogan Cricket Twenty20 “It’s off the ho-OOOk!”



I went to a tournament doubleheader at Newlands Cricket Ground with two other American guys who of course didn’t know from cricket either. Watching the game and looking up at Table Mountain, we sat there as Bangladesh batted a mediocre 123 points against a strong Australia side without the first clue about what was happening. Eventually a trio of Afrikaners explained the basics, along with several tangents on the glories of Pretoria. We thought we had the basic idea. Our conversation during Australia’s winning inning went something like this:


Me: So how many outs are in an over again?
Other American #1: Six, unless there’s a wicket.
Other American #2: No it’s six bowls in an over. But can they get thrown out?
Me: They don’t run like they can get thrown out.
Other American #1: I don’t know. Christ, why don’t the beer guys walk around?


But the offensive style of Twenty20 kept us watching, something cricket had never been able to do before. We were there for a doubleheader and after the Bangladesh Australia match we walked out soon after the beginning of the main event: South Africa vs. England, serious rivals playing an important match. We’d already watched three hours of cricket but our exit drew incredulous stares. Even cricket at its gaudiest and most exciting crashed into the brick wall of the American attention span.

A Township

September 15, 2007

Yesterday I visited a township with some businessmen who were eager to show off their charity work. I’m not going to say so much about it just yet other than that it could have looked much worse. Many of the houses were tidy government erected cinderblock structures, nicely painted with running water.


Some were not so nice… but worse houses are out there.

This township, home to 22,000 or so, many from neighboring countries, had a clinic, an attractive early learning center and even a decently stocked library. There were only a few stray dogs and no unpleasant odors. Nonetheless, a few km from a decidedly first world mall the problems there seemed absolutely insurmountable.

Recently I was having dinner with an American educated South African who was arguing, rather provocatively, that aid, especially without improved trade, will never change situations. He said NGO’s can “relieve” but not “improve.” He continued that Europe and America are rich but that doesn’t mean Africa has to be. One hundred and fifty years ago, he said, Europe and America were poor and wretched. He hated the notion that enough good will (or guilt) is enough to change the situation here. I hadn’t had anything to drink so I parried incoherently that some well placed aid might be able to change small things that make a big difference, like preventing AIDS. Someone who knew more than me would have argued that AIDS transmission couldn’t be addressed merely by telling the people to use condoms, that it is the sharp end of a cultural pyramid. Maybe they would have been right. I don’t know the answers.

Nonetheless standing around the nursery school in that township one quickly grasps at least one appeal of do-gooder work. Forget that warm fuzzy feeling, the intellectualizing that goes on is deeply satisfying. One South African businessman talks about teaching them—always “them”—how to manage money and how they had no aptitude for it. How they should have to pay a ZAR5 deposit (about 67 cents) to take his class so they see some value in it. That rolls into the nursery school principal saying they don’t have the ZAR5 because they can’t get work and are all unemployed. And they’re sick so they can’t find work even if they wanted to. There are infinite entry points to every problem and  no right answers.

Tough decisions have to be made of course and an earnest European bible college graduate talks about how its all about helping one person and a woman she’s found who’s very “proactive” who shows up for work and such but how do you tackle the unemployment and cultural problems and disease and alcoholism and poverty all at once? The answer is that you don’t or can’t but it’s wonderful discussing it. Each topic rolls into the next. As when remodeling a kitchen each faucet and tile assumes a fascination all its own factored to x when considering how it fits into the design concept as a whole. The discussions are rolling and could go on for days! Just about this one village in one of the richest and most modern placesin Africa!

And the kids….


Sport: a big deal

September 12, 2007

Every country has things that it likes to think about itself. In South Africa, one frequent riff in the newspapers is of a relaxed and unprententious country bathed in sunshine. It follows then, that this place is sports mad. Or rather sport mad.

I seem to have alighted here during an especially heated few weeks. In decreasing order of scrutability there’s soccer, rugby and cricket, all in focus right now. On Sunday the South African soccer team, Bafana Bafana, lost to underdog Zambia in a match that has the talk radio screamers calling for the coach’s firing. Panic is setting in that SA will not give a good showing at its 2010 world cup.

Last weekend was the opening of the rugby world cup in France. South Africa is a perennial contender and demolished a side of Samoan bruisers. The Springboks await defending champion England, (who had more trouble than expected with the Americans), on Friday in a match that must have all sorts of Oedipal overtones. As for cricket, there’s a big tournament going on right now and I believe South Africa is hosting it.
If sport as a whole is unifying, each sport here has its demographics. Globally, as in South Africa, rugby is the sport of white Antipodeans. Here soccer is more popular with blacks. The segmenting of cricket fandom appears more mixed. One also finds quite a bit of enthusiasm for Formula 1 and golf.
Undoubtedly they must regard the World Series with the sort of extreme disinterest as an American at a cricket match. It’s an oddly comforting thought. I’m not much of a sports fan but I find the idea that sport, any sport, remains almost universally appealing butthat energy gets focused, so often, on regional oddities.

By the way, thanks to those of you who expressed concern about my safety in the car. I seem to be getting more accustomed to it.