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The Zambezi be dammed! December 6, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, renewable energy, South Africa, Southern Africa.
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The Zambezi be dammed!

(This column was first published on 2010-11-03 at News24 here)

Eskom makes all of us energy colonialists. By buying electricity from a new hydroelectric dam in Mozambique it will continue to contribute to social and environmental degradation in one of the world’s poorest countries.

In August, the government of Mozambique officially approved the construction of the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam which is to be built in the Zambezi River about 60km downstream from the existing Cahora Bassa Dam. The project is expected to cost between $2bn and $3.5bn and deliver 1 500MW of electricity with the potential of being expanded to 2 400MW.

Construction, led by a consortium of Mozambican and Brazilian interests, is slated to start in 2011 and take five to six years to complete. As early as January the Mozambican newspaper Notícias reported that negotiations of long-term power purchase agreements with Eskom were expected to be concluded this year.

“So what’s wrong with that?” you ask. “Isn’t this sort of thing going to help Mozambique develop?”

Indeed, proponents of the new dam claim that it will attract energy-intensive industries to the country, but in reality, Eskom and power hungry South Africa are expected to consume some 90% of the electricity generated.

Devastating impacts

Only about 5% of Mozambicans currently have access to electricity and half of those live in Maputo. The impoverished rural majority, much in need of electricity, will not see any of the power produced by the new dam.

Contrary to popular belief, large hydroelectric dams frequently have devastating social and environmental impacts on rivers and the people and ecosystems that depend on them. In the case of Mphanda Nkuwa, more than 1 400 people are expected to be displaced by the dam and its associated infrastructure and social and environmental justice activists estimate that it threatens to compromise the livelihood of 100 000 to 200 000 subsistence farmers and fishers living downstream.

In order to cater for periods of peak electricity demand in South Africa, the turbines in the dam will be required to operate intermittently, resulting in mini-floods twice a day and fluctuations in river level of 0.5 to 2.8 metres the effects of which will be felt hundreds of kilometres downstream.

Rising flood waters will erode some of the most productive farmlands and riverbank gardens on which locals depend for their food security. The mini-floods will also threaten downstream sandbanks and other important habitats for various bird, invertebrate and fish species.

The electricity generated by large hydroelectric dams isn’t even carbon neutral. Accumulating rotting organic matter which would normally be flushed downriver continuously causes the emission of significant quantities of greenhouse gasses.

Neither is it renewable since the reservoirs tend to gradually fill up with sediment, depriving the river and its floodplains of nutrients while steadily reducing the dam’s capacity. What’s more, scientists predict that lower precipitation due to climate change will lead to reduced flow rates of the Zambezi, threatening the long-term viability of the project.

Old news

All of this is old news. The UN has described the 2075MW Cahora Bassa Dam, built in 1974, as one of the most destructive major projects in Africa. Running at a financial loss, Cahora Bassa has caused reduced fertility and massive erosion downstream, led to the drying up of the Zambezi Delta, one of the continent’s most important wetlands, and contributed to a 60% decline in the important local prawn industry between 1978 and 1995.

Efforts to restore the disrupted ecosystems of the lower Zambezi by changing the water release patterns from Cahora Bassa to mimic natural river flows more closely will be made difficult by the construction of Mphanda Nkuwa. Yet the Mozambican government approved the dam before the environmental impact assessment has even been completed, stating that it would have no identifiable impact of the Zambezi Delta or local fisheries.

So what’s to be done? A national campaign to stop Eskom from buying hydroelectric power from Mphanda Nkuwa would be a good start. Without that, the project is dead in the water, financially speaking. Anabela Lemos, the director of the Maputo-based NGO Justicia Ambiental sums up the real distribution of benefits with candour: “Clean, decentralized energy for all should be the top priority, not damming the Zambezi to support energy-hogging industry and cities in South Africa.”

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End Xenophobia! April 28, 2009

Posted by Andreas in activism, Politics, Society, South Africa, Southern Africa.
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Wow! Some really powerful anti-xenophobia posters by Zimbabwean designer Sindiso Nyoni. They’re based on the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

aalivenew1

aaliveafrica

aaliveethnic

More here.

Gulp: We’re running out of water March 2, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Climate change, Environment, Global warming, South Africa, Southern Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Here are two rather distressing maps from researchers in Germany. They show the global trend in water availability taking into account climate change, industrialisation, population growth and so on. Focus on the changing situation for South Africa. Ugly! It’s a good time to start saving piped water and finding ways to use grey water and harvesting rainwater.

Annual per capita water availability from 1961 to 1990.

Annual per capita water availability from 1961 to 1990.

The forecast for the 2050s.

The forecast for the 2050s.

Alienation – The Extraterrestrials and You February 5, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Life, Society, South Africa, Southern Africa.
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I wrote this story for obrigado a while ago (it appeared in the mag slightly edited):

Alienation – The Extraterrestrials and You

Aliens have been among us for tens of thousands of years – ever since our hominid ancestors figured out how to lie on their backs to stare at starry summer night skies. “The simple act of looking up at an uninterrupted view of the sky triggers an automatic reaction in our brains”, says Cristo Louw, the Founder and National Director of SAUFOR (South Africa’s UFO Resource). “Not only do we physically see things from a wider, 180-degree perspective, but it opens the mind and allows us to think differently about some of the big questions, like “Where do we come from?” and “What is our place in the world?”.

Louw started SAUFOR, which currently boasts about 650 members, to collect reports of ETs and UFOs in South Africa. “It’s not my job to tell people what to think or believe”, he says, “I simply collect information to enable people to make up their own minds”. Approximately 70 000 UFO sightings are reported around the world every year, but Louw points out that studies have shown that as many as 90 percent of all sightings are never officially recorded as most people don’t feel free to talk about their experiences, even with members of their own families.

He estimates that in South Africa, encounters with aliens are reported about two or three times a week. Most of these are sightings of “balls of light” and spacecraft of various types, including triangular, saucer- and cigar-shaped vessels as well as larger motherships. Although less frequent, direct contacts with ETs and abductions also occur.

In 1965, two police officers, John Lockem and Koos de Klerk, saw a disk-shaped craft take off from the Pretoria-Bronkhorstspruit road in a pool of flames that left a circle of burning tarmac. In 1989, a South African Air Force Mirage is reported to have shot down a UFO near the Botswana border. In 1996, a glowing, disc-shaped UFO evaded pursuit by Col. Fred Viljoen in his police helicopter in the sky above the Pretoria.

In June 2004, Roshnie Naidu and her husband Shrirama filmed a “massive ball of light, much brighter than the sun” that pulsated in the sky outside their home in Phoenix near Durban, for about three hours. On 20 May 2006, numerous eyewitnesses saw a UFO crash into the sea just off Port Shepstone in KwaZulu-Natal. An extensive sea and air search mission found no signs of wreckage.

Cynthia Hind, Africa coordinator for the worldwide organisation MUFON (Mutual UFO Network), has documented sightings in Zimbabwe, her home country, as well as Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Kenya. In 1951, for example, commercial airplane pilot Captain Jack Bichnell as well as his crew and passengers witnessed a metallic, bullet-shaped vessel suspended motionless near Mt Kilimanjaro for more than 15 minutes. Hind also interviewed 62 schoolchildren, who in September 1994 saw a small, pale-faced man with a long scrawny neck, huge eyes and long hair emerge from his spaceship that had landed in their schoolyard in Ruwa near Harare.

Two remarkably detailed accounts of long-term human-alien relationships stand out in the annals of South African UFO and ET research. One was a truly long-distance love affair; the other a tale of intergalactic communication.

In 1959, Elizabeth Klarer was whisked away by her alien lover Akon to his home planet Meton in the Alpha Centauri system where she gave birth to their son Ayling. Akon had watched Elizabeth, whom he believed to be the reincarnation of a former soul mate, like a guardian angel all her life. Before she turned ten he had used his spaceship on two occasions to save her from certain death, once by intercepting a meteor hurtling towards Elizabeth and on the other time by diverting a tornado twisting its way towards her.

Elizabeth, who grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal and studied music and art in Florence and meteorology at Oxford University, described Akon as “the most beautiful man” she had ever seen. He had fair skin, long white hair, grey eyes and wore a shiny, tight-fitting one-piece suit and on rare occasions a matching headpiece with slits for the mouth and eyes. Elizabeth spent nine blissful years on Meton (the equivalent of four Earth months), revelling in its advanced, peaceful and utterly utopian civilisation before having to return to Earth because Meton’s planetary vibrations didn’t agree with her.

Although she remained in regular telepathic contact with Akon, Elizabeth never saw him or Ayling in the flesh again before she died of breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 84. Her story is told in her book Beyond the Light Barrier, an unfinished manuscript called The Gravity Files and a chapter in Lauren Beukes’ Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past.

In 1960 Edwin W., another KwaZulu-Natal resident, befriended a new work colleague who turned out to be Valdar from the planet Koldas in the Confederation of Twelve Planets. When Valdar returned to outer space he left Edwin with a modified radio through which he and other aliens, Wy-Ora, Kashendo, Taylanz and Vax Noah among them, transmitted messages to Edwin and a close-knit group around him called “Q” Base for nearly 20 years. In 1974 Confederation scientists invented a new method of telepathic transmission using Edwin as a medium that allowed two-way communication.

The Kaldasian messages kept Edwin and friends up to speed on cosmic affairs and provided much information about the alien’s advanced society. Earthlings may be comforted by the fact that the ETs, too, believe in an infinite, all powerful being, usually referred to as the “Divine One” with a son whose birthday is celebrated during the festival of Nixi Yacandi and that they have put in place an emergency evacuation plan for Earth, dubbed “Operation Fireball”, that will allow willing Terrestrians to be “resettled on another planet with similar environmental conditions”.

After years of perseverance, UFO researcher Carl van Vlierden gained access to transcripts and tape recordings of the transmissions and was eventually allowed to participate in the activities of “Q” Base himself. According to Cristo Louw, van Vlierden fled South Africa for Canada when the pressure on him became too intense after the publications of his books UFO Contact from Planet Koldas and The Twelve Planets Speak!, but Edwin is still believed to live in the Durban area.

Are these just the deluded ravings of assorted weirdoes who’ve gone off the chart on the whacko scale? Perhaps, but cynics will point out that millions of people around the globe have unflinching faith in one or other deity in the absence of any physical proof. Is God an alien? If we define aliens as powerful, higher beings who are not of this world, the question may be less blasphemous than it appears at first.

But why isn’t there more concrete evidence? Where are the museum displays of spaceship wreckage and ETs in formaldehyde? Believers like Louw have long known of a massive international conspiracy to cover up all traces. According to them, many of the supposed marvels of modern science, including lasers, integrated circuit boards, fibre optics and Velcro®, are in fact examples pirated alien technology.

If the right people do it, of course, the search for life elsewhere passes as hard science. For years, multi-disciplinary international SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programs have received funding from governments and private sources to survey the sky with radio telescopes in the hope of detecting transmissions from other planets. The SETI League shows DIY enthusiasts how to convert satellite TV dishes into research-grade radio telescopes and anyone with an internet connection can enlist their computer in the effort by signing up for SETI@home. In 1973, Professor Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA and Nobel Prize winning biologist, proposed that the seeds of life on Earth may have been purposefully spread by an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation in a process evocatively called “directed panspermia”.

And if you can’t find them, join them. The prospect of establishing permanent human colonies on Mars and the Moon may make the transition from science fiction (see for example Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterful Mars Trilogy) to reality sooner than you may think. No less a scientific icon than Stephen Hawking has called for massive investments towards that end as an insurance policy against the extinction of humanity on its home planet.

Most people today slot neatly into either of two X-Files categories when it comes to extraterrestrial life: the unbelieving, or at best perpetually sceptical “Scullys” who demand hard, scientific evidence, and the passionately convinced “Mulders”, ever ready to trust their own intuition and other people’s experiences. But do we really have to look to the stars to realise how truly strange and alien our world has become? A world in which Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, our most celebrated chefs, serve us deconstructivist delicacies of molecular gastronomy like foamed beetroot, bacon-and-egg ice cream and snail porridge, in which in vitro meat is laboratory-grown far from the rump of a cow or the breast of a chicken; a world of which we claim to be the most advanced inhabitants even as we poison it with carbon dioxide and styrofoam hamburger boxes. Who then are the real alien freaks around here?

Swaziland = Zimbabwe? May 15, 2007

Posted by Andreas in History, News, Politics, Society, Southern Africa, Swaziland.
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Most South Africans, myself included, know very little about Swaziland. Our very liberal press keeps us well informed about the latest civil rights abuses in Zimbabwe, but we hear next to nothing from Swaziland even though many people in that country habitually compare their own situation to that of Zim.

A Swazi friend has been complaining bitterly about life in Swaziland for months and I’ve been asking him to write down his experiences for me. The other day he sent a few press clippings from The Times of Swaziland and the Swazi News and I thought I’d write a bit about their contents – month old news is better than no news, right!?

Let me first set the scene, though, by reminding you of the fact that Swaziland is an absolute monarchy. Yup, the King is pretty much, well… the king of the place. According to Swazi law and custom, the monarch holds supreme executive, judicial and legislative powers and is also the Commander-in-Chief of all of the country’s armed forces.

The country does have a two-chamber parliament with a House of Assembly and a Senate, but the trappings of democracy are very thin: the king effectively controls the parliament and political parties and large political gatherings are outlawed.

King Mswati III and his numerous wives enjoy a lavish lifestyle of luxury mansions and expensive cars, while the country is crippled by poverty, unemployment and very high HIV infection rates. If that all sounds very medieval and feudal, that’s because it is!

The newspaper articles speak of widespread greed and corruption among the country’s elite, harassment of unions and police brutality.

In early April, two members of the fledgling Police Union of Swaziland, one of them its president, Buhle Dlamini, were fired by Commissioner of Police, Edgar Hillary, and some twenty of the union’s members were suspended or transferred.

Swazi News columnist Thulani Thwala wants to welcome visitors by erecting billboards at all of the country’s border posts that read “ZIMBABWE TO BE… IF NOT ALREADY” and fumes:

What we are condemning in Zimbabwe right now, most recently the assault of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, is exactly what has been happening in Swaziland in the recent past.

He describes the new constitution that was adopted in early 2006 as “cosmetic”:

Currently, the constitution gives hope where there is virtually none. It appears it is more brutal than the devil we know.

On the 12th of April, the People’s United Democratic Movement, PUDEMO, called for pickets and blockades of all major border posts with South Africa to commemorate the “1973 Decree”, which banned political parties in the kingdom and to protest about the constitution.

The protests, supported on the South African side of the border by COSATU, the Swaziland Solidarity Network, SACP, YCL, ANCYL, SA Police Union, COSAS and SASCO, were met by large police contingents and blatant police brutality. The newspapers carried photographs of a plain-clothes police officer virtually strangling a protester, which led to an outcry among civil society. Several people were arrested and six charged with sedition because their placards contained “derogatory information”.

All of this is happening right on our doorstep in a neighbouring country and most of us don’t know, let alone do, anything about it.

Molotov Cocktail – a new South African magazine April 28, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Magazine Reviews, Politics, Society, South Africa, Southern Africa.
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Aimlessly looking over a CNA magazine rack the other day, I was quite excited to find a new South African mag called Molotov Cocktail. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the independent media in this country and have long thought there is glaring gap in the otherwise glutted magazine market for a progressive, even radical (heaven forbid), edgy, locally-produced title.

Personally I’d be especially excited by anything along autonomous, anti-authoritarian or anarchist lines, but this looked pretty good at a first glance – the provocative title, the cover art of a hand poised to throw a lit petrol bomb and the subtitle, Dismantling the Master’s House Brick by Brick, were all very promising.

molotov

All started reasonably well. The editorial talked about “inclusion not exclusion”, celebrating SA history, not fearing it and confidence trumping despair. But then this:

Molotov Cocktail broadly backs the principles and policies of the African National Congress. We believe that discussing the ANC with insight and generosity will be more interesting and productive than condemning the party out of ignorance.

Huh…! My heart sunk. You see, last time I checked, the ANC was having nothing to do with dismantling any master’s house. Quite the contrary, they were struggling to provide decent housing for the country’s poor and had in fact moved into the master’s old servant’s quarters at the back of the garage. This did not bode well.

I’m afraid to say that my fears were well founded. Having read my way through the whole issue, I realised that I’d been had by clever marketing. I had judged this book by its cover and was suffering the consequences.

I found Molotov Cocktail surprisingly conservative, predictable and for the most part just plain boring. I had hoped for an analysis of society’s current situation and progressive suggestions for a better world, but the magazine provided non of that.

There were some reasonably interesting contributions, such an organogram of “Money and Power” in South Africa, a good excerpt from Peter Hallward’s upcoming book Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment, and an enlightening short history of the 1808 Slave Rebellion in the Cape by Richard Gott. On the whole, however, this was mostly quite stale stuff.

The low-lights include an interview with Eeben Barlow which astonishingly manages to make this professional soldier, 32 Battalion veteran, DCC and CCB operative and former head of mercenary outfit Executive Outcomes look like a paragon of virtue and morality, and a rather pathetic homage to a young Thabo Mbeki, who, we are told, used to be a good, democratic communist in the 60’s and 70’s.

The second issue of Molotov Cocktail is due in June. If No. 01 is anything to go by, I suggest you save the 30 bucks and have a half-hour discussion with your conservative parents or colleagues – you’ll learn more about the problems in SA society and what needs to be done about them…

Book Review: Looting Africa by Patrick Bond April 16, 2007

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Book Reviews, History, Politics, South Africa, Southern Africa.
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My rating: 6 out of 10 – lots of very valuable info, but quite academic.

I’m a big fan of Patrick Bond and have read several of his books, including Fanon’s Warning, Talk Left, Walk Right and Against Global Apartheid.

He has been one of the most consistently outspoken progressive voices and establishment critics in South and Southern Africa in the last few years. He combines grassroots activism with cutting-edge political and economic analysis and constantly illuminates crucial connections between the global north and south.

His books are, however, very technical, academic and dry and if you are not a political economist, you may find them rather heavy going. I’m left to wonder how much more impact and influence his work would have if it was more accessible to ordinary people. To people like myself the economic jargon tends to obscure rather than clarify matters…

Having said that, his latest book, Looting Africa – The Economics of Exploitation should be required reading for anyone who’s concerned about Africa’s future. In it, Bond basically addresses the question “Why is Africa still poor?”.

At the beginning of the book, Bond presents two opposing answers. The first, which is widely pushed by the liberal press and establishment, is that “Africa is poor, ultimately, because its economy has not grown…”. The second states that “Africa is poor, ultimately, because its economy and society have been ravaged by international capital as well as by local elites who are often propped up by foreign powers…”.

Obviously Bond is a proponent of the latter answer and he proceeds to present data and analysis to demonstrate that Africa’s poverty is not only a result of historic evils such as slavery and colonial-era extraction of resources and profits, but that comparable processes do in fact continue today “in an amplified way” via debt repayments and “African elites [who] have transferred their society’s liquid reserves to oversees accounts on an even greater scale […]”.

Among other issues, Bond discusses the continuing African foreign debt crisis, unequal and unfair trade and investment relationships, the role of the Bretton Woods institutions (International Monetary Fund and World Bank), China’s growing influence on the continent and South Africa’s increasingly sub-imperial role.

Looting Africa concludes with an assessment of the two predominant views on how to fight Africa’s continued impoverishment, either through paternalistic mainstream efforts (Global Call to Action Against Poverty, Make Poverty History, “Live 8”) or through radical grassroots civil society movements.

Botswana Bushmen told to shape up January 23, 2007

Posted by Andreas in News, Society, Southern Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Festus Mogae, the President of Botswana, recently told a small gathering of Basarwa Bushmen that they should give up their ancient hunting and gathering lifestyle and adopt modern ways (I came across his comments in Die Burger and haven’t managed to find his actual speech in English anywhere).

A little historical reflection reveals the considerable arrogance of Mogae’s comments.

He was speaking to members of a community that has just won the right to return to their ancestral homeland in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve from which some 3000 of them were illegally evicted between 1997 and 2002.

map of Botswana

Since that time the Basarwa have survived in the squalor of crowded and isolated resettlement camps where poverty, Aids, joblessness, alcoholism and dependency on aid and government handouts were the order of the day.

On the eve of their long-awaited return home (the court case granting their right to return was the longest running case in Botswana history), Mogae decided to tell a people whose ancestors have lived in the area for hundreds of years, literally since “pre-historic” times, and have done so under harsh conditions without degrading their environment, to give up the very knowledge that enabled them to do so in the first place.

At a time when the very foundations of modern western civilisation are under threat from Global Warming, resource depletion and environmental destruction on a massive scale, Mogae was telling the only people who have managed to live in the Kalahari in a truly sustainable fashion to forget their ancient wisdom and technologies.

That’s what I mean by arrogance. Of course his pleas for the Basarwa not to return to their homes and traditions are in effect genocidal as well.

Should we really be surprised, though? Mogae is, after all, merely repeating what the “civilised” have told the “primitive” wherever and whenever they have encountered them. The inevitable consequences of Mogae’s and civilisation’s attitude are of course entirely predictable.

Just as the “civilised” are decimating biodiversity around the world through mono-crop industrial agriculture, habitat destruction and genetic engineering, so they are wiping out cultural diversity by “encouraging” – no forcing and black-mailing – indigenous people to get with the program of ProgressTM and abandon their old ways of life.

Just as the annihilation of biodiversity is lethal to whole ecosystems and ultimately life on Earth, this cultural colonialism will deprive all of us of the immeasurable knowledge of how to survive on an increasingly inhospitable planet.

Let’s just leave the Basarwa alone. In fact let’s do all we can to help them recover their way of life on their own terms and hope they haven’t given up on the rest of us yet – I have a sneaking suspicion that we will need their help sooner rather than later!