Tag Archives: South Africa

Rhinos and Resource Extraction

white-rhino_755_600x450Rhinos are one of the oldest species of mammals on the planet.  Brought back in from the brink of extinction in southern Africa, they are once again under grave threat.

As a very strong article in The Guardian details, one of the world’s greatest preserves for rhinos, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is threatened by plans to permit the opening of an open-cast coal mine near the border of the park. The mines would draw large numbers of people to the area, many of whom would inevitably be enticed by the high prices of rhino horns on the international black market.

The question of what South Africa is doing opening so many coal mines is the gaping question that underlies current developments. The article in The Guardian mentions that the number of operating mines in South Africa has increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. The government argues, the article suggests, that these mines are necessary to provide power to the country’s majority population, against whom apartheid policies discriminated in many ways, including energy provision.

But why is coal power, the most dirty form of fossil fuel, the dominant mode of energy generation in South Africa? To a certain extent, this seems like a misguided policy on the part of a national government – the ANC – desperate to provide resources to its people under constrained conditions.

But such an analysis ignores the significant boost that coal has gotten from international interests, including the World Bank. As Patrick Bond details in an account of the grievously misguided loan from the World Bank for the building of the coal-powered Medupi power station in northern South Africa, international lenders such as the World Bank have a long record of supporting the most purblind and environmentally destructive development policies in South Africa.

Among the many destructive impacts of such policies, then, we might think about how the support for coal mining contributes not just to climate change on a global plane, but also to the potential extinction of one of South Africa’s greatest natural treasures: the white rhino.

 

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The Extermination of Charismatic Megafauna

rhinoThe world’s last charismatic megafauna are being exterminated.

This slaughter is taking place with particular gory ferocity in Sub-Saharan Africa, for reasons linked to the continent’s enduring poverty and vulnerability to global regimes of resource exploitation.

An article in The Guardian describes the record-breaking tally of rhino deaths in South Africa. So far this year, 558 rhinos have been killed. The slaughter is on track to exceed last year’s horrendous tally of 1,004.

Articles such as the above one often mention that animals such as the rhino are killed for Asian markets, where the horns are (falsely) believed to augment male sexual potency. elephantUnfortunately, these articles seldom mention the decades of structural adjustment programs – administered by Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank – that have made sub-Saharan nations and peoples vulnerable to the globe-girdling trade in illicit megafauna flesh.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker offers a similarly decontextualized analysis of the contemporary slaughter of elephants such as Satao (pictured above). Her article puts these tragic deaths in the context of the worldwide extinction of megafauna since the Neolithic revolution. What she does not mention, however, is the culture of European colonial big-game hunting that was responsible for the vast majority of such extinctions around the globe. Nor does she talk about how Western policies of  “development” are linked to enclosures of land and resources around the world, encouraging strapped locals to plunder the remaining resources for global markets.

A lot of work remains to be done to place this slaughter in adequate political-economic context. Tragically, animals like the elephant and the rhino may well be effectively extinct before the policies that are promoting their slaughter are reversed.

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Madiba RIP

young+nelsonThe celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life have been both fortifying and frustrating. They are a testimony to the long road traveled, as well as the whitewashing and historical elisions that take place as we look to the past.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to hear such universal acclaim for a man that politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher once condemned as a terrorist.

On the other hand, the veneration of Madiba ignores the fact that he was only one person – a peculiarly determined and charismatic one, granted – in a much broader movement against madiba1apartheid. When one speaks to South Africans who lived through the apartheid era, one immediately finds that struggle and sacrifice (as well as silent complicity or outright racism) were universal. It is a country scarred by brutal history, but ennobled by tremendous bravery and sacrifice that was nearly universal.

In addition, there are many questions about Mandela’s years in power and the legacy he left. Patrick Bond’s commemorative article offers a judicious account of the deals struck by the ANC once Mandela achieved power in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. This involved, in Bond’s words, an “intra-elite economic deal that, for most madiba2people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

The democracy Mandela brought to South Africa was a flawed and compromised one, although it was still seemingly miraculous given many people’s fears that the country would descend into civil war and racist bloodletting. His heroism through the many years of captivity and his generosity towards his former captors was exemplary. Yet Mandela’s legacy is one that we must both celebrate and lament.

La lucha continua!

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Architecture of Fear

During the colonial era, Africa was represented as the land that time left behind. European colonial powers justified their rule over many parts of the globe, and over Africa above all, by arguing that other parts of the planet were evolutionary backwaters. Europe was held to be the most evolved culture on the planet, the model to which all other cultures were supposed to aspire.

This temporal narrative was sutured onto space. To travel from Europe to Africa was thus not just to travel away from the center of global culture, technology, and civilization in general, it was also to travel backward in time. These racist notions were incredibly pervasive in European colonial culture, shaping the ideas even of critics of imperial brutality such as Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness retains many of the tropes of Africa as a prehistorical space.

The whole framework of development during the postcolonial era was predicated on retaining these temporal tropes. Africa and other parts of the world that succeeded in liberating themselves from colonial oppression were nevertheless expected to “develop” or catch up to the West by integrating themselves into the global economy. This meant accepting the capitalist rule book, including elements such as intensive fossil-fuel driven agriculture. As we know now, these notions of development, along with the loans that accompanied them, did not in fact help most African nations “catch up” to the West. Instead, they saddled most of these nations with forms of exorbitant debt that shattered their infrastructure and consigned them to a form of permanent indentured labor for the global economy.

Nonetheless, today Africa is no longer seen as a space that lags in temporal terms. Quite the contrary. Africa is now seen as the future the rest of the planet will one day catch up to. Its extreme inequalities, mass surplus population, tremendous pools of informal labor, immiserated millions in mega-cities like Lagos and Nairobi – all of these components make critics of both the Right and the Left, from Mike Davis to Robert Kaplan, see Africa as a bell-wether.

South Africa is perhaps the most extreme case of such extremes. It offers nearly unparalleled wealth cheek by jowl with stark poverty. Walking around the affluent neighborhoods near the university where I’ve been staying during COP17, the architectural implications of this polarized society are highly evident.

At night, the streets are totally abandoned, except for the occasional prostitute. The affluent suburbanites of this area – the vast majority of whom are white – don’t even leave their cars on the street for fear of burglary, so the streets are almost as blank as those of a traditional Arab medina.

During the day, the multifarious architecture of security is discretely apparent. Here are some images I snapped while walking the streets (the only white man on foot, of course). High walls, razor wire, ferocious dogs, private armed response units, and, above all, ubiquitous electrified wire (rather hard to see in some of these photos because it’s so thin and hence discrete). The temptation to touch some of this wire to see how much of a jolt one would get was strong, particularly since it was so delicate, but I refrained since I suppose there must be enough juice in there to kill a man.

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All of this offers a powerful metaphor for the world of climate apartheid created by elites over the last two weeks here in Durban. It’s not so surprising that people see Africa as prefigurative.

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Failure

I think today must go down in history as the moment when humanity collectively failed to secure its own future. It also has to be seen as one of the greatest crimes of the rich and powerful of the world against the vast majority of humanity that has ever been committed.

Although I won’t hear the full skinny on final negotiations inside the COP17 conference until later in the day, it’s already clear that the news is not going to be good.

Here’s what former Bolivian ambassador to the UN Pablo Solon had to say in a hasty email sent out while negotiators sprinted towards the finish line last night:

A few moments ago we found out the decisions that they have been cooking behind the scenes. In Durban they won’t approve a second period of commitments of the Kyoto Protocol. This will happen at the end of next year: in COP18. In Durban they will only take note of the draft amendments and the “intention” of rich countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol will lose its heart. The promises of reductions by rich countries will be incredibly low until 2020 and will lead to a temperature increase of more than 4 degrees C. The Kyoto Protocol will turn into a Zombie without a global figure for reduction of emissions by industrialised countries, and will carry on walking until 2020 just so that carbon markets don’t disappear. In 2020 it will enter into effect in “a new legal framework appliable to everyone”. By everyone, they mean diluting the difference between developed and developing countries, between countries responsible for climate change and those who victims. The US managed to eliminate any mention of a “binding” agreement. That means the “new legal framework” will be an empty gesture without any effect. This will become known as the lost decade of the fight against climate change. Genocide and ecocide will reach proportions that we have not yet seen. The Great Escape by the Rich has turned into the Great Swindle.

Solon does not toss around terms like genocide and ecocide carelessly. The failure to agree to a just and binding replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, the only climate agreement that humanity has ever reached that had any real teeth, signals the inability of humanity in general, and the rich nations in particular, to agree on a course of action that goes beyond competitive, short term interests. We’re essentially looking at a world in which inter-imperial tensions are being ratcheted up, leaving the rulers of powerful nations thinking only about their defensive interests. The killing irony is that this behavior will only ensure greater hostility and competition.

If one looks at the geologic record, it’s clear that human beings have enjoyed a period of extraordinary environmental stability over the last 10,000 years. It is likely that this stability would have ended one way or another at some point, but, with the failure of negotiations at COP17 to achieve any of the goals that the climate justice movement has been pushing for, we have ourselves ensured that this window of stability will close quickly and ferociously.

It’s hard not to think that we’re not all that different from other primates. Despite our vaunted claims to self-consciousness, historical awareness, and collective rationality, at the end of the day we seem to be ruled by the basest of our passions.

Today we have ensured that we will be unable to take our fate into our own hands. And it is the poor and weak, people like the rural farm women I’ve met over the last two weeks during my stay in South Africa, who will be the first to be devoured by the holocaust we are unleashing.

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Apartheid in Arizona

The legislature in Arizona recently passed House Bill 2281. This document bans ethnic studies courses which promote race consciousness from public schools.  This law of course comes on the heels of the draconian new immigration law SB 1070.  It’s worth thinking about the relation between these two laws.

Education bill 2281 specifically prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that: a) promote the overthrow of the United States government; b) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; c) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; d) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The ideology here of course is complete objectivity in the classroom.  Supporters of this legislator are marching in lockstep with Daniel Horowitz, whose campaigns with Students for Academic Freedom have long blasted any form of politicization.  As my colleague Malini Johar Schueller and I have argued in Dangerous Professors, this spurious notion of objectivity obscures the inherent politicization of dominant established curricula and attempts to roll back the (relatively slight) gains made by post-1960s social movements.

In fact, the explicit target of the legislation is the Mexican American Studies Department of the Tucson Unified School District.  According to the department’s website, the education curriculum is designed to a) advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice; b) advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the Mexican American/Chicano cultural and historical experience.

House Bill 2281 is a transparent attempt to clamp down on forces of ideological opposition within Arizona, a necessary counterpart to SB 1070.  Their symbiotic nature is made particularly evident when the bills are compared to similar bans enacted elsewhere.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, for example, the ruling regime sought to silence critics of the status quo by banning them.  Coupled with lynching, torture, and summary execution, the practice of banning was a key instrument of apartheid-era policy.

The banning of organizations or individuals was originally authorized in South Africa by the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, and subsequently by the Internal Security Act of 1982.  The definition of communism in these laws was extremely broad, including any activity allegedly promoting civil disturbances or disorder, promoting industrial, social, political, or economic change in the country, and encouraging hostility between whites and nonwhites so as to promote change or revolution.  The main organizations banned under these laws were the Communist Party of South Africa, the African National Congress, and the Pan-African Congress.

More than 2,000 people were banned in South Africa from 1950 to 1990.  Once a person was labeled a threat to security and public order, s/he essentially became a public nonentity.  S/he would be confined to her or his home, would not be allowed to meet with more than one person at a time (other than family members), to hold any offices in any organization, to speak publicly or to write for any publication.  Banned persons were also barred from entering particular areas, buildings, and institutions, including law courts, schools, and newspaper offices.

The banning of ethnic studies departments in Arizona is an integral part of the reactionary program being advanced by the Right in the state.  As the South African parallel suggests, the silencing of dissenting voices is just as essential to authoritarian hegemony as more obviously repressive forms of state power such as ethnic profiling in policing.

This assault on civil liberties and educational democracy needs to be taken just as seriously – and challenged just as ardently – as the state’s oppressive immigration legislation has been.

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Eco-Imperialism

In an appearance before the U.S. congress today, Obama administration deputy special envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing testified that America intends to hold the South African government to its pledges to cut carbon emissions.  This despite the U.S.’s abstention in the vote on the $3.75 billion World Bank loan to build one of the world’s biggest coal-fired power plants.

This comes on top of the Obama administration’s recent decision to deny mitigation funds to Bolivia and Ecuador in response to their refusal to sign up for the sham Copenhagen accord.

As an article in the Guardian cogently points out, “Pershing’s comments align with the Obama administration’s policy of shifting some of the burden for dealing with climate change from the industrialised countries which have historically caused most emissions to rapidly emerging countries, such as South Africa, India, China and Brazil.”  Shifting the burden are the keywords here.

Speaking of South Africa, I also wanted to note an interesting article on the blikkiesdorps or slums created by government clearance programs in advance of the World Cup.  As the Olympics in Vancouver demonstrated yet again, sporting mega-spectacles almost always lead to increasing homelessness and diminishing civil liberties.  The World Cup in South Africa is unlikely to be any different.  Sad really – I was in South Africa during the unsuccessful bid to win the games back in 2000 and remember how decimated people were when the national bid was rejected.  I’m afraid that people’s expectations are likely to be quickly deflated.

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