SA’s bad press

Just look at the news stories involving South Africa which made it to the front page of the BBC News website (more than 800 million pages served each month) over the last week and you can see why some people claim that SA gets a bad press. We have good old African corruption, political crisis, more self-publicising Simon Grindrod nonsense about crime and a completely laughable story about Durban being named after… well… bulls bollocks. A bad press, yes, but that’s not to say that these stories are not true – sadly, they are (although Simon Grindrod is an idiot and has a vaguely amusing name). It’s perhaps just a little unfair that the country’s dirty laundry is out there for so many to see, while the neatly folded stuff in the cupboard remains… in the cupboard.

But that’s not the only “bad press” that I’m talking about. South Africa’s own news sites – such as News 24 and IOL – are pretty awful: laden with poor journalism, sensationalist rubbish and more adverts than actual stories. That’s why it’s sometimes very hard to actually get a handle on what is going on in this country.
After all, why would one trust any content from a front page that features a dark picture of a dodgy looking gent, claiming to be a 25-year old man “looking to date men and women between the ages of 18 and 100”?
Not the most specific of parameters, I think you’ll agree, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

At the end of the day, it all comes back to the fact that bad news sells newspapers, gets viewers and snaffles a nice big internet readership too. Those good news stories are kept for the final item: the “and finally…” to leave the viewer feeling all snuggly and warm and ready to come back again at the same time tomorrow; that despite the fact the world is filled with crime, disease, earthquakes, war and poverty – Snookie the labrador is looking after some orphaned piglets, so everything’s OK.

Sadly for SA, most people on the BBC News site will have read the headline SA’s Table Mountain ‘needs army’ and moved on, probably with the thought that they’ll leave Cape Town and BullsBalls off their summer itinerary this year, Snookie or not.

What Sky News has missed

It’s strange how things happen. Only a couple of days ago, we were enjoying the story of simple country folk together, going about their er… “business” without a care in the world. And now, suddenly, the role of the British vet is seen in a whole different light (actually, thank goodness) as an outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease (FMD) in Surrey, UK is investigated.

As a microbiologist, this case is particularly interesting to me. I’ve always had a bit of a personal interest in epidemiology (the study of the spread of disease) and the detective work that goes with it, since reading the story of the Broad Street pump. I guess I’m just a frustrated forensic scientist, deep down. With a love of bacteria.

The FMD outbreak in 2001 was devastating for the British farming industry and cost the livelihoods of many hundreds of farmers. Over 7 million animals were culled and the total cost of the episode was in excess of £8bn. Behind those easily reported figures though, the true human cost remained largely hidden. It was a very a big effect for a very small virus (about 0.0000001mm in size).

So I guess in a way it’s understandable that, so far, the rolling news stories have all been about the human side of the story. That’s the way that British news has been heading for some time now – demonstrated admirably by the hopelessly overblown Madeleine McCann case. After all, there’s nothing that reels in the viewers like a distraught farmer, crying in front of the baying newsmen; the pride of his life – his thoroughbred bull who he describes as being “like a pet” – shot in front of him, along with the rest of his herd of 100 cattle.


But for me, what makes this whole sorry scene even worse is that this outbreak appears to have begun at a research laboratory site nearby to the (so far) two affected farms. That it seems to be down to poor laboratory practice makes me even more angry for the poor farmers and even more incredulous that the news teams in the area appear to have missed what I think is the bigger story here.

The virus that causes FMD is one of the picornaviridae, called Aphthovirus. Because of the lack of any cure for the disease, the lightning quick transmission and the low numbers of viral particles needed to cause infection, aphthoviruses are classified as a Containment Level 4 pathogens by the Department for Enviornment,Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Just to put you in the picture – and I could list the others, but I think that one will do – essentially that’s the same classification as the Ebola virus.
Step forward Dustin Hoffman in a spacesuit. Or something.


Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the research facilities at Pirbright have Ebola on site. That would be silly. But there is something utterly terrifying about a pathogen “escaping” from a CL4 facility. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. It’s the stuff of hideously paranoid paperbacks, of low budget films, of conspiracy theorists wildest dreams. And now – in all probability – it’s reality.

Why have Sky News missed this so far? As I said – this is the stuff of movies – surely right up their street?
I think that maybe they just haven’t realised the “Ebola link” yet. So once again they wheel out Prof Hugh Pennington (he and I have history – grr) and his eyebrows and he says… well… nothing of interest. No big surprise there. Literally.
So, Sky et al, if you’re reading this:

Here is the news.
A virus as dangerous as Ebola has escaped from a laboratory just outside London.
Stop interviewing crying farmers and get on with some real journalism.

Much obliged.

The Big South African Crime Post

This post won Runner-Up in the 2008 SA Blog Awards BEST POST category.

Wow. What a week.
We had the arbitration panel’s report on the Tevez affair, we had the new crime stats released in South Africa and I actually managed to play a game of football for the first time in almost three months, the last of which goes some way towards explaining the bruise on my arse. Some way, not by any means all.
It was inflicted by a stoutly-built Slavic dwarf. Seriously. I’m still not sure how he reached.

As for the Tevez scandal, I’m not going to start on here about that. First off, I’d have to try and explain it, which is going to be time-consuming and suitably subjective. Then, by the time I upload this, everything will all be out of date. And, by the time you read it in 2009, they’ll probably still be bickering over some minor legal technicality. It’s time that football authorities clamped down on the things that are ruining our beautiful game. Those things would include dodgy transfer deals, Sheffield wednesday and stocky Bulgarian midgets.

Which leaves us with the hot potato, the thorny apple, the… the… pokey fishcake – whatever – that is South Africa and crime. Woo.
OK. For starters – South Africa has a big problem with crime.
There. I said it. Whoever that was at the back who suggested I wouldn’t say it was wrong.
You people who deny that there’s a problem, get with the programme. There is. Believe it, because it’s true.
And some of it is on the increase. Although equally, some of it is on the decrease too.
The stats show that South Africa remains one of the most violent societies on earth – the figures are shocking. People pay their taxes and they are right to expect more to be done to reduce rates of crime in the country.

That said, while the stories in the newspapers may make grim reading, the majority of us carry on with our lives without being directly or personally affected by crime. According to the latest figures, 40 in every 100,000 people will be murdered in SA each year, but lest we forget, that still leaves 99,960 who won’t be. I’d love them to be better, but for me, those odds (equating to 2,500-1) are still pretty good. Let’s face it, would you really bet on a horse that was a 2,500-1 outsider and expect to win? No. Because that’s what odds are all about – indicating the probability of something actually occurring. Moreover, by being sensible and avoiding situations and places where you might put yourself in danger, you can lower that risk still further. You can’t do that with your horse.

There’s another more sinister side to this issue as well – race.
Because of the ongoing inequalities in many areas of South African life, there is a perception that the majority of crime victims are white.
Not true. By far the majority of crime victims are black. But the average white person is more likely to have a computer, internet access, education to be able to write to their local newspaper and so forth than their black counterpart. So we do hear an awful lot from them.
It’s just another way that the press exaggerates the public perception of crime in this country. Yes, the power of the press can be an important tool in bringing about change in society, but sadly, the current hysteria is counter-productive and the perception of the situation is actually far worse than the situation itself.

In addition, there really isn’t the need for the hysteria that the extremely vocal minority exhibit on online forums etc. Many of those seem to be ex-pat South Africans desperate to run their country down, perhaps in order to justify their decision to move away. That move was their decision and it’s their right to be allowed to make that choice. But while they tell the world about how dangerous South Africa is from their new homes thousands of miles away, we live here and we’d like to set the record straight.Do come to South Africa. Do behave sensibly as you would on holiday anywhere else in the world.
Don’t wave your iPod around in downtown Cape Town – it might get nicked. As it might in downtown New York, Amsterdam or Sydney.
Don’t wander round Nyanga on your own late at night. Or Harlem. Or the Manor Estate in Sheffield.
And really, don’t expect to be shot or mugged as you get off the plane – that’s just paranoia – you’ll be sadly disappointed and you’ll look proper stupid doing your ninja stealth moves along the air-bridge for no reason whatsoever.

I’d especially welcome comments on this post; from those in SA, those with an SA connection and those with a passing interest since they started reading this brilliant blog – what do you hear about SA in your country? Please take time to indicate which category (if any) you fall into – just for interest’s sake. 

Keep safe, wherever you are.

Comments from this post on ballacorkish.net (my old site) can be read here.
 
 

 

Weather woes

While the weather here in Cape Town has been pretty miserable of late – a succession of cold fronts bringing wind, rain, more wind and more rain to the peninsular, life is no better in the UK.
Of course, it’s summer there, so they’d be expecting rain. Add that to the fact that Wimbledon starts today and it was the Glastonbury festival this weekend and you could have predicted precipitation.
That said, I don’t think many people expected it quite as bad as it was.
For example, check out this picture snipped from the BBC News website earlier today:


Bassey: grounded

That’s right. The weather in the UK is so bloody awful right now that they had to ground Dame Shirley Bassey. Apparently, there were worries that she would drift away like a giant zepplin. Extra cable had to be brought in from Poland to tether her securely to terra firma.


“This unprecedented action was taken due to the inclement conditions,” said a spokesperson for the singer, “Usually, we allow her to fly throughout the summer, before locking her away in a hanger near Cardiff for the winter months. But we had no choice but to ground her due to the heavy rain and strong winds. We hope to have her flying again before the end of the month.”

Da Lowdown

As my virally-ravaged body continues to exude mucus at an alarming rate, I felt it was time to update the site once again. This is mainly because, although my symptoms have shown a mild improvement since yesterday, I’m still far from convinced that I’ll make it through to the end of the week.


I have already been forced to miss two football matches, one international rugby game and one father’s day, while the pharmacists of Cape Town now greet me happily by my first name and offer less then reasonable credit terms for the myriad of their products I have been utilising. At one point, I was taking 22 times my RDA of vitamin C. My kidneys were extremely unhappy about this and it seemingly made precisely bugger-all difference to my immune system. I cut down when my hastily calculated risk/benefit analysis on the back of a tissue box revealed that the vitamin C would allow me to live for approximately 3 more days than if I wasn’t taking it.
3 more days of snot, coughing and generally feeling like crap?
No, thank you.

So, aside from generating bucketloads of phlegm, what have I been up to?
On the technology front, I have discovered Audacity and have been playing around with that. Now all I need is a nice OpenSource video editor and I’m sorted. Anyone?
My music listening on the now infamous rattly iPod has been almost exclusively Send Away The Tigers by the Manic Street Preachers, which is dangerously happy by their somewhat melancholy standards, but with guitar work echoing back to Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible (the Manics’ album not the book, which, although not an avid reader, I believe contains virtually no guitar work).


The public sector workers strike continues – just. A whole one bloke in the picket line outside the hospital this morning, which was rather amusing. He was toyi-toying, but mainly just to keep warm, I think. Note: solo toyi-toying is really funny to watch.
Anyway, according to the Allister Charles of the NEHAWU Union in this morning’s Cape Times:

Our demand is still at 10%, there’s no doubt about that. But the question nationally is: are we going to accept or should we fight until we reach 8%? That’s for you to decide.

Is it just me or does he have it all wrong? Isn’t he supposed to be fighting for a bigger percentage increase? Keep fighting, Allister and you’ll owe them money.
Once you’ve settled that little issue, we can chat about the R50 you owe me. What’s that, you say? You actually owe me R75? I thought it was R100. R125? Really? [continues until I’m a millionaire]…

One last bit of good news. While I may be slightly behind in updating my 2010 flickr pictures, South Africa is exceeding its obligations, as Sepp Blatter found out on his visit this week. Awesome stuff, even if he can’t pronounce Phumzile’s name. Lots of people struggle with that though.That’ll be all for now then – consider yourself informed.