One cheer for John Howard

Dear old Melanie Phillips is correct in praising the Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to prevent the country’s cricket team from touring Zimbabwe.

Cancelling sporting fixtures, as we all know, is a powerful weapon to use against repressive regimes for which such recognition is all important. … What a difference, for example, from the behaviour back in 2004 of our own government, whose supposedly “ethical” foreign policy did not actually stretch to stopping the England cricket team from going on a similar tour of Zimbabwe.

Then, the English cricket authorities were reluctant to stop the tour because of the huge financial penalties that would be imposed for what would have been a technical ‘breach of contract’. In such a situation, it/we desperately needed a political leader to protect the players, and agree that the British taxpayer would underwrite any fines. As we know, citizens have no objections to footing the bill for such things, if they are persuaded that it is the morally right action. But Jack Straw provided no such leadership. Nor did Tony Blair.

But with 400 words still left to fill, Phillips veers off course.

Mr Howard, in sharp contrast, is entirely free of such absurd and crippling cultural cringe. He believes in Australia and its Western values. He thinks these values are superior to any alternatives.

And it is this total absence of equivocation in upholding the national interest which explains his robust defence of both Australian identity and Western civilisation against attack. … Understanding that the war against civilisation is being waged from within as well as from without, he abolished multiculturalism at a stroke by renaming Australia’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, turning it into the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

He has also called for a “root and branch” overhaul of the way history is taught in Australian schools, and said pupils should have “some understanding” of British and European history, the Enlightenment and the influence of Christianity on Western civilisation.

Melanie Phillips seems to forget about the plight of the Australian Aboriginies. It is precisely this narrow definition of ‘national interest’ which systematically destroyed their robust, sustainable communities. It is precisely this rhetoric of ‘civilisation’ which led to the indigenous people being forced off their land, which led to families being torn apart. It is precisely this assertion of dominance which led to the demoralisation of an entire race. Phillips’ delight in these assertions of supremacy, and her praising their increase under the leadership of John Howard, is a demonstration either ignorance or hypocrisy. A robust multicultural policy, which proudly asserts the value of the Aboriginal culture in the face of unrelenting attack, is a good thing and should be encouraged. What a shame the Department of Multicultural Affairs was abolished. There is nothing ‘crippling’ about a bit of cultural cringe in this case, and Australia could do with a little more of it.

Caged again

Mandela Bust by the Royal Festival Hall

There seem to be quite extensive renovations going on outside the Royal Festival Hall at present. In past days, the Mandela sculpture had disappeared from its plinth on the South Bank.

It has now been reinstated, albeit behind a wire fence for the moment.

Africa on Film

I was pleased to see Forest Whitaker win the award for Best Actor at this year’s BAFTAs. It is indeed, as the critics have said, a compelling portrayal of the dictator Idi Amin.

Remembering a few reviews of The Last King of Scotland, the principle criticism of the film was the slight incongruity of the Dr Garrigan character, a fictional Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy. Why do we need the “white man in Africa” cliche to understand Amin and his rise to power? Why indeed, did the film-makers prioritise Garrigan’s adventure? Why not just call the film Amin and centre every single scene around Whitaker?

The same charge was levelled at Blood Diamond. This time the setting is Sierra Leone, and its brutal civil war. But, what’s this? We have Leonardo DiCaprio, white and tanned, in the lead role! He plays a South African mercenary, befriending a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who has lost his family after an attack by the RUF. Lo and behold! DiCaprio the Action Man takes the initiative, rescuing a rare pink diamond and Hounsou’s disparate family into the bargin, before being martyred in the final scenes. How come (they say), yet another film about Africa ends up being about the white man?

In fact, I think the structure and message of Blood Diamond positively demands white characters. It is, after all, about how the global trade in diamonds exacerbates regional conflicts. “If people knew that the diamond on their finger cost someone their arm, they wouldn’t buy it” says one character.

If the white characters are present so European and American audiences “have someone to relate to” then the effect is different in the two films. Blood Diamond draws the white audience into the problem, and castigates them. By contrast, The Last King of Scotland would have been far more challenging if the central British character had been the seedy official from the High Commission (played by the delightfully odd Simon McBurney). His dialogue alludes to the fact that the rise of Amin was aided and abetted by the British… but this aspect is left unexplored. Instead, we see James McAvoy have an affair with Amin’s wife. It portrays the white man as innocent and niaive, the black man as tribal, brutal.
Continue reading “Africa on Film”

Let the women rule

The Sunday Times has an interesting feature on women leaders. Sarah Baxter asks “Are we ready for a triumvirate of Iron Ladies?” Hilary Clinton in the USA, Angela Merkel in Germany, and Ségolène Royal in France.

Last year, I interviewed Stella Chiweshe, the Zimbabwean Diva, at the WOMAD Festival in Reading. She was the first woman to achieve popularity playing the mbira, the traditional African instrument… so naturally I asked her about the role of women in her culture. She gave me a more globalised answer:

“I tell you: Let the women lead! It is the woman who feels the pain of burying a child. You men just say “my child, my son, my daughter” for pleasure. You never feel these pains. You suffer, I know you suffer, men, but not as women suffer. And if you let us rule, you see how happy you will be! You are only making yourselves sad. You men are creating problems for yourself. They say a man without a wife is not a good ruler. Why is that? It is because we feel he needs that support. So why don’t you sit back and let the women rule, and then support her instead? Then the world will be so peaceful, because we wouldn’t create so many wars.”

As Baxter points out, the evidence so far might not support this view. Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi all became the first women to lead their respective countries, yet all took their country to war.

Minerals in Zimbabwe

Amid all the distractions that this utterly insane world presents to us, it is worth reminding ourselves of the looming crisis in Zimbabwe.

Of course, I use the word “crisis” in a very anglocentric sense: I mean some violent series of events that will catch the attention of the world’s media. More afrocentric analyses have had Zimbabwe in crisis for many years. Inflation is at 1,281%, the rule of law has been all but abandoned by Mugabe and his henchmen, and many people are forced to subsist off vermin.

Via Zimbabwe News Update, we hear that as many as 22,500 miners have been arrested since November, who have been illegally mining minerals such as gold and diamonds. The sheer scale of this lawlessness is worth considering. Like the growing of opium or coca for drug use, setting-up and operating an extra-legal mining operation requires huge confidence, and no small amount of weaponry. In this case, the government seems to have asserted itself before such operations become organised, but it does not bode well for the future. When the revolt finally comes and the government breaks down completely, it will not simply be a popular revolution of the starving with (say) the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at its head. It will be a battle between emerging war-lords, seeking to control the country’s mineral wealth.

Poverty in Zimbabwe

Alternative currencies

Two alternative currencies from two African countries.

Listening last night to the BBC World Service programme Global Business, we heard from presenter Peter Day that mobile phone credit has become a currency. Apparently, SafariCom phones have the ability to transfer credit from one phone to another. A man can ‘top-up’ his own phone in Nairobi, and send some of the credit to his mother in the rural areas. She can in turn send that credit on to the phones of traders in the market place, in exchange for goods. Entrepreneurs place a high value on mobile phone credit, as the pricing and market information they recieve via their mobile phones is essential to their business.

Unfortunately, the presenter missed the crucial question in his interview with the SafariCom CEO. If their phone credit is being used as currency, what happens when the company decides to raise the cost of their calls? They will effectively devalue a common currency, which could ruin the smaller traders. Should a telecommunications company have this kind of power?

In contrast to Kenya, the economy in Zimbabwe shrinks further every day. Now it transpires that Zimbabwean prostitutes are demanding payment for their services in gasoline.

More trouble brewing in Zim

During last week’s special edition of BBC Question Time, a flustered David Cameron said that his party needed to show how enthusiastic they were about foreign affairs:

And when the Conservative Party talks about international affairs, it can’t just be Gibraltar and Zimbabwe – we’ve got to show as much passion about Darfur and the millions of people living on less than a dollar a day in sub-Saharan Africa who are getting poorer while we are getting richer.

Given that Zimbabwe looks set to sink deeper into crisis in the coming weeks, I thought it was bizarre to lump it in with Gibraltar in this way.

The Zimbabwean Pundit reports on police brutality to stamp out demonstrations, and reminds us that the Zimbabwean Congress Trades Unions, the organisation formerly led by Morgan Tsvangirai, will be leading a protest tomorrow, 8th November.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is itself in turmoil, ahead of the senate elections. While Tsvangirai wants the party to boycott the elections, fellow party members are not in agreement.

The US ambassador may well be expelled in the coming days, for criticism he levelled at the Zimbabwean Government. What with the township demolitions (now completed without severe sanction to the administration), and the upcoming senate elections providing another career opportunity for ZANU-PF politicians, President Robert Mugabe’s regime will be buoyed.

This is bad news for Zimbabwe. Nowhere is the failure of the state more serious, the failings of the leader more apparent. Calling for an end to this human rights outrage would be a good starting point for Messrs Cameron and Davis to show us just how passionate about international affairs they are.