Can you write me off too, please?

Great news! (if you’re Cuban, that is.)

According to this morning’s Cape Times, the South African government has written off a 12-year-old debt owed to it by Cuba for export insurance relating to diesel engines, pesticides, Joost van der Westhuizen promotional mechandise and biltong.  
Very generous. Very, very generous in fact, when you hear that the debt totalled R926,8million. Now although the current exchange rates mean that that princely sum would only buy you a prawn mayo sandwich in London, it’s still a whole lotta Rands.

Government communications head Themba Maseko told a media briefing following Wednesday’s regular Cabinet meeting:

Given the assessment of Cuba’s debt position, government is of the view that Cuba was not in a position to meet its obligations in the foreseeable future.

I’ll bet that little gem of an announcement was slipped in right at the end of the briefing, following 4 hours waffling about exciting social grant allocation, fishing subsidies, landfill waste statistics and annual concrete price fluctuations. “Oh – and for those of you still here and still awake, we also voted to write off a billion Rands worth of debt to the Castro brothers. Thank you all very much, see you next week.”

At this point, I’d like to introduce you all to my bond. My mortgage. The money I borrowed from the bank to pay for my house. Now, to coin an official government phrase, “Given the assessment of my debt position, I am of the view that I am not in a position to meet my obligations in the forseeable future.”
This, by inference and extrapolation, together with a good dollop of subjectivity and bias, therefore means that my bank can write off all that I owe it and I can celebrate with a few mojitos and a fat cigar. Right?

Wrong. Despite the fact that I could be doing better things with my cash than throwing it into the ever-deepening pit of excessive interest payments, a pit which now dwarfs Kimberley’s Big Hole (and here I refer to the city in the Northern Cape, not the lass on Sea Point Main Road) – I still have to pay it back. Life is just so unfair.

Seriously though, what could South Africa have done with that billion Rand? Well, maybe the answers are right in front of us on the same Cape Times website:
Prevent deaths through water-borne disease in Soweto?
Fight the scourge of alcohol abuse and tik which is ruining students futures?
Reducing child mortality rates, which are still on the rise?

Look, I know Cuba has problems too. But I pay tax in SA. For SA.

South Africa’s electricity crisis

Woo. “Crisis”. There’s a strong word. But yes, that’s what it is.

It’s a complicated story, but it boils down to this: years of poor planning and underfunding, coupled with a healthily growing economy simply means that there isn’t enough electricity to go around. And therefore, in order to protect the national grid from damage through supplying electricity that’s not there and being hopelessly overloaded, Eskom, the national electricity supplier, has introduced load-shedding. This is a system whereby, when demand exceeds supply, they cut power to areas of the country so that the remaining areas can get on with life.

You can see the issues. Industries are in the middle of production runs, businesses are working on computers, residents are cooking dinner. And then – click. All is calm, all is bright. Apart from the bright bit, obviously. 
And you’re taken back to a previous time, before electricity had been harnessed and controlled. A wonderful age, with steam trains, gas-lamps and cheeky schoolboys playing with sticks and hoops and running across cobbled streets in front of horse-drawn carriages. Quaint, but actually bloody annoying.

There are upsides. Generator and candle sales have never been better. But they are the exception in this sorry tale. Businesses can’t cope, they’re losing money hand over fist. Householders complain, but except for the odd case*, it’s actually just an inconvenience. A culture of blame ensues – letters to the local press name and shame electricity wasting buildings and lament the fact that streetlights are left on during the day. Misinformation abounds. Eskom is a laughing stock and it just wouldn’t be South Africa if there was no racial issue in there somewhere:

We always had enough electricity when the whites were in power!

Yes. Of course you did. That’s because outside investment in the country was virtually nil and the economy was held together with duct tape and a weekly prayer to the bloke upstairs.

There is an even darker side to this though (no pun intended). The past participle issue.
How do you describe, when complaining to your drinking buddies, the local paper or anyone who is still bothering to listen to your incessant and pointless whining, what happened when your power was cut yesterday afternoon? Were you load-shedded? Or load-shod?

I shouldn’t laugh, but it is funny when people are moaning. I understand their frustrations, but they start inventing new words. They think I’m making fun of their plight and slap me, which does temporarily halt my mirth, but only until their next use of “load-shod”.
“Load-shod” just sounds funny, while “load-shedded” is clumsy and doesn’t work.

But it’s ok – I can help you out. If you want to avoid these amusing or difficult phrases, just don’t tell me about it.
It’s symbiotic. You don’t get your tongue twisted, I get a nice peaceful morning in the dark. Lovely.

Look – I’m not saying that these power cuts are a good thing.
They aren’t. Power cuts are a bad thing.
Nor am I saying that you don’t have a right to be annoyed, irritated, frustrated.
Of course you do. It’s annoying, irritating and frustrating.
I think that what I’m saying is that since there is no light at the end of the tunnel – literally, it seems – just stop moaning – how does that help? Be a bit more proactive. Work around it as best you can. You’ll live. Really**.  

And never – never – use the word “load-shod” in front of me and expect me not to giggle.

* Standard hysterical over-exaggeration: “What about all those people on life-support systems at home?!?!?!”
** Terms and conditions apply. Like not being on a life-support system at home.

Glued to their blooming PlayStations

Look, there’s a serious point in all of this, namely that the “nanny-state”, a lack of decent funding and the constant threat of petty litigation have forced local councils to prevent Britain’s children from… well… “being children” anymore.

But fewer, smaller, safer, more expensive playgrounds mean more obese kids and a sorry decline in “those fascinating crusty objects” – scabs – as Boris Johnson laments, brilliantly describing the consequences of growing up in a scabophobic society.

First the outer edges would harden, leaving a raw red patch still faintly weeping in the middle. Then the whole thing dries into a miraculous integument, as firm and knobbly as the edges of a bit of cheese on toast.

You could tap it. You could stealthily probe its edges, with the connoisseurship of the man from Del Monte, to see if it was ready. Then one day it would all be gone, and we saw the skin underneath, pink and new and whole.

The scab experience was a brilliant lesson in biology, and it is in some ways sad that our children these days seem so scab-free. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for more of them to have accidents.

I am not positively advocating that we encourage our children to fall out of trees or get whanged off roundabouts moving at 200 rpm. But the scabophobic measures we have taken to protect our children have had consequences we could not have intended.

While Boris is trying to score political points (and why not? – after all, that is his job) he’s certainly correct that we (we being parents, society) mollycoddle our children far too much these days – and the fact that that behaviour is having disastrous effects on them and therefore, by inference, on us.

I’m right behind him on this one.

And while political upheaval is upheaving all around me here in South Africa, it’s so refreshing to read his very entertaining (yet actually quite serious) analysis which somehow accurately ties the lack of damaged kneecaps in young children with the decline in basic common sense and the decay in the moral fibre of society my homeland.

New dawn for SA?

As the morning mist cleared over the city of Cape Town this morning, slowly giving way to the African heat, I was driving into work, listening to soundbites of Jacob Zuma’s inaugural address as ANC President yesterday and thinking that the whole mist thing would make a really cheesy start to this “new dawn” post.

Suddenly, it seems that now the public have heard JZ speak about his thoughts and plans for the ANC party (and therefore theoretically for the country), rather than the media’s somewhat one-sided interpretations of the man, they actually quite like him. Certainly, that was the impression of many (mainly white) callers who got in touch with the radio station this morning, expressing their shock that he had some good ideas, some supportable policies and wasn’t intending to kill off all the white people by 2010*.

There were some on the BBC website (as there always are), however, that continued with my favourite “We’re going to be another Zimbabwe theme”. Specifically logicman from Stevenage:

It all depends on what the people of South Africa want? If Jacob Zuma gets into power the country will go the same way that Zimbabwe has. Do they want that? If he takes control then he will probably jail, or murder, all those who oppose him.

Yes. Jail or murder. Probably.

Of course, Stevenage isn’t in South Africa, so logicman fortunately doesn’t get a say in things. He’s still wondering where the World Cup 2010 is going to be, since he knows that the whities won’t allow “that dark sport” into their beloved South Africa.

There is of course, one spanner in the works. The corruption charges against JZ which seem set to lead to a court case sometime in 2008. While all the evidence (as helpfully provided by that balanced media I mentioned earlier) points to his absolute guilt, JZ still protests his innocence and welcomes the opportunity to have his day in court to prove it.

All in all, despite the doom and gloom merchants continuing to be doomy and gloomy – mostly from lands far, far away from here – there are others who this week have seen a new side to Zuma and are cautiously optimistic about moving on from an Mbeki-led ANC to a ruling party run by a charismatic, “people’s person” with radically different ideas on big issues like crime and HIV.

Only time will tell of course, but is this a new dawn for SA? Well, the mood seems generally positive. The booming economy and those who run it are happy that JZ seems to have adopted a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach; the whities are very glad that he used the words “crime” and “zero tolerance” in the same breath, while those at the other end of the scale are encouraged with his plans for land redistribution, poverty alleviation and aggressive approach towards the HIV/AIDS problem.

So – new dawn out of the way and I think it’s time for breakfast. Thabo on toast, anyone?

* Well, he didn’t say he would, anyway…

Back to life, back to reality…

It’s over. And South Africa won it. Which is great news for all concerned. Well, all concerned with South Africa, anyway. National pride is swelling, flags are being flown and… and… well look, that’s actually about it, but that’s just fine. Now – can we get back to normality, please?

It’s true. The last couple of weeks have just been odd. Everything else has taken second (or even third or fourth) place to rugby stories. It would have been a very good time to do a Jo Moore and hide your dirty laundry in the depths of the SABC bulletins.
In fact, thinking about it, maybe they have and we haven’t noticed yet.
I think that would be unlikely though. Even the spin doctors were probably more focused on events in France than lying about their respective parties political achievements.

But who needs spin doctors anyway with photos like this?

Up he goes
Thabo: Had a great game

For one such as myself, craving a return to reality – or what passes for reality in this country, anyway – it was almost a relief to see that the Springbok victory was being used for political purposes. It just wouldn’t be right otherwise. Check out that pic of Thabo – that’s mighty political currency right there.
Could you see Gordon Brown being hoisted aloft if England had won it? No. Despite the obvious weight issue, he’s Scottish anyway and no, he’s not “the President of England” as the local commentary here repeatedly described him. That almost suggests that he is some sort of despot who simply slipped into power without being elected, which is obviously incorr… well, never mind…
The SA Minister of Sport, Makhenkesi Stofile, has also not been backward in coming forward after the win in Paris. His argument?

If South Africa can win the RWC so easily with a largely white squad, perhaps they’ll struggle more if we pick the team based on colour rather than ability.
This will obviously be good for national morale.

OK, I’m paraphrasing him, but it looks like the quota system is rearing its ugly head once again. Politics and sport, hey? A heady mix. As The Telegraph’s Brendan Gallagher points out, it tarnishes the victory, the celebrations and – once again – the image of the country.
I’m not sure I ever bought the “unifying power of a shared positive experience” theory anyway. Yes, the people welcoming the team back this morning at OR Tambo were all happy, cheering and smiling, but they were probably going back to decent housing with water, electricity and an inside toilet or six.

 Anyone imagining that Percy Montgomery’s boot and a helpful (but apparently correct – just!) decision by the TMO on Saturday evening will solve all South Africa’s problems is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Or “The Presidential Residence”, as it is locally known.