Swaziland, The Beloved Country Bleeds: August 2011

Swaziland has been high on my agenda for the past few weeks. I travelled there in late July before returning to Durban. There were two main reasons for my Swaziland visit. First was to meet up with my colleagues at theNational Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA), a body formed by the government in order to respond to the epidemic. I have been working with them since they were established. The second was to go to Waterford Kamhlaba School for a number of events including our mid-year Governing Council meeting.

I flew into Matsapha airport, and as usual, picked up a car. Driving through the industrial estate, I found myself behind a mini bus with five large colour photographs in the back window. Moving from left to right they were of: Che Guevara, Osama Bin Laden, Muammer Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe and Julius Malema. The last may need some introduction; he is the young firebrand leader of the African National Congress Youth League who makes frequent intemperate and irresponsible speeches. Most recently he and his comrades called for the overthrow of the Botswana government as it is “led by capitalist lackeys”. This did not go down very well in South Africa, and of course was even less appreciated in Botswana! I wonder why the driver put up those particular photographs, and in that order. It was clearly a message but it went over my head.

The visit to NERCHA was, as always, inspiring. The staff are an excellent bunch and I am proud to be associated with them. The country is facing a crisis which is the subject of two separate postings on this website. The first is a briefing that I am putting up on this website separate from my usual monthly blog and the other was co-authored with Jacqui Hadingham for the Royal African Society.

When I was in Mbabane (and this is reflected in the postings) the talk was of imminent government bankruptcy. Swaziland had asked the South African government for a E1.2 billion loan as the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank had turned them down. On my return to Durban the news came that the King secured an E2.4 billion loan from South Africa on quite favourable terms. He was hailed in the (government owned) media as the saviour of the nation. The Swazi opposition and some of South African unions are outraged. Quite what will happen next is not clear: it is not time to give up.

I was invited to open the student’s annual art exhibition at Waterford. It was a flattering invitation. I took it seriously and carefully prepared my brief opening remarks. There was, I hope, one key message: hard work and practice are necessary for good art. I hung the message on the example of Lucian Freud who died the previous week. His obituaries described how long it took for him to complete his portraits. The second example I gave was that some years ago I exhibited a piece of work as part of the annual ‘Member’s Exhibition’ at the KwaZulu-Natal Society Gallery. This convinced me that, as an economist, I do not have an artistic bone in my body but also good art requires good craftsmanship. I was told that my remarks were well received and appreciated.

The Governing Council meeting was long but productive. For the first time in a long time there were no major issues or crises to deal with. The school is running well. It looks as though there is more demand and then there are places and the calibre of the applicants remains high. Big issues we had to consider were at what level to put the fee and salary increases at for next year. This is always the task of the July GC meeting. There was a discussion of the economic crisis and the effect it will have on Swazi parents. The best way forward may be the creation of a ‘hardship fund’ of some description. We already give a significant number of bursaries, cannot set differentiated fees, and need to be pro active and imaginative.

Films and books

Lincoln Lawyer (2011) based on a book by Michael Connelly, this is the story of a lawyer, Mickey Haller, who works from his car in Los Angeles County. He is employed to defend a wealthy Beverly Hills playboy, Louis Roulet, accused of beating up a prostitute. Initially the lawyer believes his client was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He then sees similarities to an old case where he persuaded the client to plead guilty. Haller decides Roulet was guilty of this killing but cannot divulge this because of attorney-client confidentiality rules. He gets Roulet off on the case he is retained on, but manages to get him arrested on the earlier charge. The book is good and this film is an excellent courtroom drama that I found gripping. 8/10.

Green Hornet (2011) is what we would have called a ‘skiet and donner’ movie. Literally a ‘shoot and beat up’ film. It was not my first choice on the plane. Even given the heightened emotions of travelling, it turned out to be fun and quite thought provoking. It begins with the relationship between a boy and his wealthy father who publishes an influential paper. The son inherits the paper and, with a former employee of his father (a kung fu expert) the two join forces to fight crime. . The son Britt Reid creates a superhero persona for himself, ‘The Green Hornet’. At one level this is a simple film packed with action. On another, it looks at father son relationships; the relationship between the two young men (platonic); how one can be spoiled by having too many resources; and the role of the press. Of course the classic study of this topic is Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, published in 1907, which was one of our set books at school. 6/10

Eat, Pray, Love (2010). Based on the runaway best seller by Elizabeth Gilbert this is the story of discontentment. Julia Roberts plays Gilbert, a young married woman with everything a modern woman could want – a husband, a house and successful career, yet, she finds herself lost, confused and searching for what she really wanted in life. She gets a divorce and travels for over a year to three destinations spending four months in each: Italy (eat), India (pray); and Bali (love). It is the story of a journey of self-discovery. I read the book some years ago and found it interesting but indulgent. The sequel Committed is more interesting but

Cessna’s In Durban

I wrote something for my Website and decided that it was not good enough. I may use what I wrote in another format and somewhere else, but it means that I am rather behind in my news.
There was an interesting experience a few weeks ago. Coming from London the plane left a bit late. Just before the cabin doors closed the person sitting next to me took out a cell phone and proceeded to have a long conversation. We were asked to switch our phones off, she carried on talking. The steward walked passed and said, “Madam please will you put your phone off?” As we taxied she talked. The cabin-crew member came and asked her to switch it off. She said, “of course” but carried on talking! The steward came back and again saying: “if you don’t switch it off we will have to stand until you have”. She finished her conversation, reached into her voluminous bag, and took out four other cell phones, which she proceeded to switch off one after the other. His eyebrows rose into his hairline.

I returned to South Africa via a meeting in Brussels. This was on global health governance and the right to health, organized by Gorik Ooms, an interesting Belgian trained as a lawyer and now an academic after heading MSF in Belgium. The one slight downer for me was that on the Monday night I was violently ill. I would like to think it was the seafood I had but suspect that the alcohol combined with homeopathic sleeping pills may have had something to do with it. It is an uncomfortable feeling to be crouched over a toilet bowl and the number of stars the hotel has makes little difference.

The time in Durban has comprised one full week in the office and two where I made side visits. The first was to attend a Medecins Sans Frontieres meeting in Swaziland. The discussion was around TB and AIDS and particularly the new multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extra-drug resistant (XDR) TBs that are emerging in the region. What was particularly troubling was to learn that having no treatment is better for avoiding drug resistance than having treatment that is not adequate. This makes sense, of course, you have to have some form of treatment for drug resistance to develop and that is what is being seen in Southern Africa. The meeting was organized by Medecins Sans Frontieres and what also became clear to me is that is an uneasy alliance between Government and this organization: they are doing what Government should be doing but doesn’t have the resources to do. Additionally there are issues around the sustainability of such interventions and what will happen when MSF goes. The philosophy underlying MSF activities is to get involved for a medium-term period when there are no options and this is what they have done.

I have done rather more flying that I should and guess that getting on an airplane on the 15th and going to Vancouver will not help my global climate change karma. So some thoughts about Durban. I managed to get one flying lesson here. We flew from Virginia Airport which is a small strip mainly handling light aircraft, in the northern part of the city, and right next to the beach. The aircraft was a Cessna 152. I handled it reasonably well but unfortunately it is the windy season here in Durban and the gusts were too strong for me to land.

It is very different flying from Virginia than it was from Norwich, oddly this airport is far busier; does not have a radar system for them to know where you are; and has a tighter circuit than Norwich. All this means that flying here is actually more challenging than it has been in the UK. I plan to will mix and match my lessons although I suspect that going solo will be easier in the UK than it is here because the runway is so much bigger. In addition there are lights to guide you in in Norwich, Durban does not have this.

One of the interesting things about telling people I am learning to fly is discovering how many others have either done some lessons, have friends who have learnt, or who want to. My optician took 24 lessons and was just about to go solo before he gave up. He said it was because two of the instructors at the flying school had crashes.

My major busyness in Durban has centered round responding to the HEARD mid-term review, which was carried between June and September. This is absolutely critical for ensuring that we obtain funding going into the future and was a 64-page document with 15 recommendations to responded to. I was delighted by the way the HEARD team came together to assist in the response. They were truly remarkable. The first part of the response was drafted by one and another five read and re-read the document to get it exactly right. I finished reading it in the dentist’s waiting room and it has gone off. What a relief. It doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods as far as work and busyness goes; that will carry on into the New Year as we prepare new memoranda, a work plan and think about the long-term strategy. Nonetheless it is an important milestone and a big step forward.

So I got back to Durban. What is it like being back? Well I had forgotten the noise of the traffic on Moore Road (which has been renamed as Che Guevara Road). This is very loud in my bedroom. I had to go to sleep with earplugs. Mind you this is not as bad as the first night I moved in. On that evening there was burst water main about 100 meters from my bedroom and the entire night was spent to the sound of drills and excavators as the city corporation set about fixing it. It was a nightmare.

In the morning there are the birds that start chirping at 4.00 in the trees outside, the sun begins to rise at about 4.30 and when I get up at 5.30 and looked out of my window I could see my jacaranda tree is full bloom. There have been a mixture of rainy and wet, and beautiful sunny days. Spring is wonderful.

I was driving back from town the other day when I really took notice of the evangelical marquee used by an evangelical church in Albert Park in the city. Having just been in other capitals it is striking how evangelical preacher’s tents are springing up like mushrooms on waste ground across the cities of southern Africa.