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16 Aug 2008

Film festival on the xenophobia riots

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 11:18 am

Almost by chance, Rhiannon and I landed up watching one of the events that is part of the Tri Continental Film Festival, at the Cinema Nouveau at Rosebank. It was a screening of a number of short movies, as well as some public service shorts shown on TV, all based around the xenophobia riots that broke out in May around Johannesburg.

The films were really good, and obviously very moving. The first covered the events before and during the riots, from the ground, and I think managed very well to avoid imposing interpretation on the motivations and actions of the people concerned. The other movies focused on the displaced people (foreigners as well as South Africans from smaller language groups) and some of their stories in the refugee camps.

The riots were and remain a huge national shame, I think — that a country like South Africa, with our historical focus on human rights, and huge resources, should need to be pitching UN High Commission of Refugees camps within Johannesburg, reflects a huge failing at all levels of society. This includes the poeple involved in the violence, but also government and society at all levels, for the poor response to the crisis.

But today’s event certainly helped me understand what happened a lot better. The films were followed by a panel discussion, with all the directors, as well as a number of speakers and many of the people shown in the films. It’s quite clear that in the township of Alexandria, for instance, there were and remain major grievances around housing. The government has been building RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses, which are supposed to be made available free to otherwise-homeless inhabitants of the township. But it seems that many have been given or sold instead to people not from Alexandria, allegedly as a result of bribes. Some of the people who have landed up in the houses are foreigners, which led to some anti-foreigner sentiment in marches that happened before the full riots started. As so often is the case, the defenceless landed up suffering for the failings of others.

Taking a step back, however, it was fascinating how almost every person at the screening had a different interpretation of the underlying problem and solutions for dealing with xenophobia. We had (some very animated) diatribes about how:

  • The government’s capitalistic “neoliberal” economic policies don’t help the poor, and cause widening inequality
  • The real problem is that government leaders didn’t provide leadership at the time
  • Continuing black-white inequality is the real problem
  • It’s important to think about white guilt, and some people perhaps being pleased that black people can also do bad things
  • People have legitimate grievances
  • Grievances are not legitimate if they lead to violence
  • The marches against xenophobia that followed the riots show that lots of people recognise our shared humanity
  • (And back to the start) Marches against xenophobia are only any good if they aren’t led by Trevor Manuel, servant of The Capitalists (Trevor Manuel being the minister of finance

I may be exaggerating a little by the end, but if you take everything that people were saying seriously, then the way to prevent xenophobia is to create a utopia. To summarise: (1) everyone arrived at a different key insight as a result of the riots, and (2) no-one likes Mbeki (the president).

It was certainly very entertaining, with lots of underhand comments and funny asides. But now I am quite exhausted, and also have had a major kick in the social conscience. Maybe I’ll go start a school or something.

14 Aug 2008

Apple store in Johannesburg?

Filed under: Technology and science — paulcook @ 3:05 am

Well, no. At least, not an actual Apple store as run by Apple Inc. At least not yet.

But… I was wandering around Sandton City, arguably Johannesburg’s premier shopping mall, and passed one of the best locations in the mall (corner of a major intersection of routes), and came across:

Yep, it looks exactly like an Apple store, down to the colour of furniture and flooring, and even the presence of a support “bar”.


12 Aug 2008

You know you’re back in Africa when…

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 2:13 pm

Ah yes, back in Africa: I recently heard a commercial for a particular four wheel drive car (SUV) which was based around how good it is at getting away from a charging elephant. Which, actually, is a pretty good argument.

In between seeing all the friends again, I’ve been sorting out the little paperwork details of life, like bank accounts, expired drivers licenses, and so on. And working quite hard — there’s a bit of a rush right now. Next will come finding a place to stay. Which raises some interesting questions:

  1. Should I look to share, or get a place of my own? Doesn’t look like any close friends are looking to share at the moment, so it’d be with someone else
  2. Should I rent or buy? Prices are fairly good to buy at the moment, but of course it’s a whole raft of additional work, now and if I later wanted to sell or rent out.
  3. What sort of place do I even want?
  4. And where? Made more difficult by the related question of where do I want to work (set up an office)?

So yeah, any wise suggestions welcome.

And for something completely different: to “celebrate the small but potent part the snowball has played in Johannesburg history” (ie., because it’s snowed a few times in the last century), there is to be an official snowball fight this coming weekend, downtown. All completely absurd, of course. More here and a good write-up half way down here.

7 Aug 2008

Update: for non-Caltech friends

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 1:10 pm

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet for the last few months. This is largely due to my thesis, and the crunch of finishing it sooner than I had been expecting, say, a year ago. But I have indeed finished my thesis, and am now a Doctor of Philosophy in the field of Theoretical Physics (String Theory). It is fun saying this. I intend to continue doing so.

The last few months, or even years, of the thesis have been tough going — in retrospect, the topic was not really an ideal fit to me. My work was ultimately very mathematical, and light on physical visualisation, which is probably the opposite of what would have suited me. Anyway, it’s done now!

As a result, however, I’ve decided to take at least a break from physics, and not immediately start a new postdoc. I’m going to be working full time on an internet startup that does online administration of highly customised leadership development instruments (questionnaires, PDF reports, etc.), called Thornhill Associates. We’ll see whether I enjoy it, and where it goes. But it will be nice to still have the flexibility of working hours that I’m used to!

I’ve just moved back to Johannesburg. It’s been tough to leave the friends and places of the last five years, but also great to catch up with friends here.

And now I’m degenerating rapidly into generic platitudes, so that’s enough for now. You want to know more, you’ll have to contact me!

Update: for Pasadena friends

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 12:45 pm

I’ve made it back to South Africa! The flight was long, but broken with a good day in London — visited the Tate Modern art gallery, and met a cousin and friend from some years back (Brenda) for lunch and coffee. Now I’m staying with my parents while sorting out an apartment. Work has kicked in pretty hard already — lots of big projects on the go, which is good in principle, though makes apartment shopping pretty hard!

The day after getting back, though, I went skiing, in Lesotho (the landlocked country in the middle of South Africa). This being Africa, the ski slope was short. One drives through rolling hills covered with golden brown grass, and suddenly comes across a white rectangle on one hill side — this being the ski slope. We were there for four days, during which I snowboarded and skied, and avoided injury (unlike some of the other people there). I’d love to say we then spent all evening carousing … but we were in bed by 8:30pm quite reliable. At least I had jetlag to blame.

I have a new cellphone number: +27 76 115 7408. (Or 076 115 7408 from within South Africa). This was quite an exercise in self education, as my cell company of choice has at least four entirely different concepts for cellphone accounts. One can get contracts that have free minutes for use at any time, or only at off-peak times, in various denominations and in either per-second or per-minute billing. Or there are contracts that are measured in cash rather than free minutes, and for which you buy additional cash allowance once the built-in allowance is used. Then there are all sorts of pre-paid options, including one set where the cost of calls continually varies based on network demand — your phone shows, at any given time, the cost of making a call. All of these are consumer options — there are of course different business options, and another whole set of ways to add data plans for cellphones or directly for laptops.

In the end I gave up thinking, and went to the closest grocery store to buy a new number, bundled with six months free incoming calls, for the eminently reasonable price of R1 (about 15c US). Come the iPhone here (Aug 22, probably), and I’ll re-evaluate. Now I need to learn all the other tricks, like how one can text message airtime from one phone account to another.

I’m looking forward to catching up with more friends here this weekend!