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Blog » 2008 » September

25 Sep 2008

A new president and cabinet!

Filed under: Africa, Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 2:36 pm

South Africa has a new (interim) president and cabinet! I’m quite excited, because it looks by-and-large like a good team. But mostly, I’m really excited because the new Minister of Health is my aunt!

I’ve had some people ask me about the situation recently, so here’s a very brief summary (what follows is of course entirely my opinion). The ruling party (the ANC) has been badly divided recently, between supporters of the outgoing national president Thabo Mbeki, and current ANC president and former national vice-president, Jacob Zuma. The issue is a drawn-out corruption trial against Zuma, arising from an arms deal quite a few years ago. Supporters of Zuma have been alleging interference from Mbeki in the various decisions to continue the prosecution, by the National Prosecution Authority. Supporters of Mbeki, and others, have been keen for the case to be heard — especially as at least some evidence seems fairly strong. Regardless, it’s been interesting to see marches and speeches on BOTH sides, all in defence of the independent judiciary and the constitution.

The most recent turn was a reference to possible interference from Mbeki and government, in a recent ruling in one of the High Courts. This, along with rapid collapse of support in the ANC for Mbeki, was enough to persuade the ANC’s National Executive Committee to recall Mbeki from his deployment as national president (as per the appropriate lingo). He duly resigned on Sunday, active today (the transition process has been managed very carefully and smoothly). Since South Africa is a parliamentary system, the new president is elected by parliament from amongst its members, and is Kgalema Motlanthe.

My thoughts are similar to those I’ve read elsewhere (eg. the Sunday Times): Mbeki was not doing a good job, and so it’s good that he has resigned; though the motives of the Zuma supporters are suspect. In my opinion, Mbeki has been a great statesman in many respects, especially in foreign policy. On the other hand, he’s had a few key weaknesses, notably HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe. More fundamentally, he has been very controlling, even paranoid, and has sometimes appointed key officials more for loyalty then competence or suitability — notably the outgoing health minister. This has led to far too much corruption and mismanagement, and the subversion of many of the ideals of the struggle. It’s good to see the pendulum finally swing against this leadership style, but the lasting damage is there — even those working most vocally against Mbeki have been using some of the same underhanded and paranoid approaches that he has. This is a huge shame, and it’s not at all clear that Zuma will re-introduce the missing moral high-ground.

As interim president (until the elections due in April or May), however, Kgalema Motlanthe sounds great. From all accounts, he more than almost any senior figure caught up in the divisions has kept a sense of the correct way of handling issues. He has a lot of respect from people across the board, and has been willing to call out some of the more … outspoken Zuma supporters when they have been out of line. So I was quite happy with his election.

And then at 5pm today, the new cabinet was announced, and my aunt is the Minister of Health! Health is of course a huge post in any government, but especially in South Africa, due to HIV/AIDS and related tuberculosis outbreaks, and the poor state of nursing in many of the state hospitals (there are parallel public and private health systems, with healthcare available to all through the public system, but often with poor nursing). The outgoing minister of health was really not at all great at the position, and was an endless source of crazy quotations on mostly AIDS issues. Taking the lead from Mbeki, she has not rolled out the AIDS treatment programme nearly as fast as it could have been — which of course has cost many, many lives and additional infections.

My aunt has more of a financial background, but in recent years has been very interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis, and has worked closely with the Treatment Action Campaign (the group that fought so successfully for the introduction of AIDS drugs). Personally, I think she’s awesome, has a great sense for what needs to be done, and works very hard and with great dedication to ensure that it is achieved. So I really hope she’ll have enough time in office to make profound changes to the healthcare system, and really solve the AIDS problem.

I’m also excited about what her appointment suggests about the new government. In Motlanthe’s first speech, he emphasised the continuity of government policy, but with a focus on successful implementation, and a healing of the divisions in the ANC. The fact that my aunt has been appointed suggests he really means it, since she has stayed out of the fight, and certainly is not one to pander to those in power. So yes, it’s not an entrenching of a power base or payback for a political favour, which is very welcome indeed!

So yeah, I certainly think we have a great team in government now! I haven’t heard from my aunt yet, but since she can’t have been approached about this any more than three days ago, I imagine she’s very, VERY busy right now. And probably a little scared too! The only bad news is that she’s been helping my parents oversee some renovations in Cape Town recently. I imagine she won’t be doing that as much now.

20 Sep 2008

Living through interesting times

Filed under: Africa, Economics, Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 5:12 am

What a week! It really has been full of momentous events, in two very different areas.

First, of course, came the complete reworking of the financial industry in the US (and elsewhere, to a lesser extent). Assuming, of course, that the worst is over — here’s hoping. No doubt there will be endless books and such written about this week in years to come. But right now three things come to mind: firstly, I find it interesting how rapidly “conventional wisdom” changes. I remember just months ago that learned figures were saying that the days of multi-functional financial firms were numbered, as their different divisions couldn’t realise benefits from working together — since a broker, for example, cannot preferentially sell his/her own company’s products to a client. Now, just a short time later, everyone is talking about the end of the narrowly-defined investment bank or other focused entity, as a concept, as it’s too hard to guarantee funding in a downturn. Secondly, there’s been the wholesale nationalisation of a large chunk of the financial sector in the US — which, if performed in another country, would probably have been labelled as completely against market principles. It has probably been wise, but still easy to label as hypocritical. Thirdly, it’s still sad to see how excesses amongst a few people drag so many more down with them. Poor regulation and dangerous practices in certain sectors of the US economy have now ruined markets elsewhere in the US, and around the world, despite that fact that many of those countries have very solid credit markets.

The other big news just broke: the National Executive Committee of the ANC (the ruling party in South Africa) has just decided after a marathon meeting to recall the deployment of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa. Now starts the constitutional process, but it seems that soon SA will have a new (acting) president. This is but the latest in a long sequence of events. But the hope now is that we can remove the poison of the accusations of political interference in the decision to continue the corruption prosecution of Jacob Zuma. By this stage, regardless of the truth, it seems hard to see how any legal events can be accepted without controversy, especially after the most recent judgment referred explicitly to possible political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority (not, I should stress, in the judicial system). Whether the legal process will continue (that is, whether there will be further appeals in the Jacob Zuma case) remains to be seen. But it at least seems that the ANC is trying to deal with its internal divisions, and are recalling Mbeki in a way that will not lead to unnecessary uncertainty and instability.

Of course, for all of the above, only time will tell. But it’s really interesting, in a morbid way, to be living through events that you know will be seen as momentous in retrospect.

9 Sep 2008

Craziness

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 2:51 pm

Life is busy! Here are some random extracts:

I gave a physics talk today at Wits University. It was largely an adaptation of my thesis defence. Turns out that the author of one of the really useful review papers in my field has been visiting here for the last few months, and he and my old advisor, Robert, had printed out and were reading my thesis! Sweet mercy, someone is actually reading it! Anyway, it seemed only right to give a talk about it. The talk went well and seemed to have been well received. But now there are some new developments recently I’m finding myself tempted to read up about…

People have crazy plans! My brother and roommate are planning to spend 20 days walking around a really big mountain in Nepal, in March. The same March that another friend (Claire) and company are buying some Land Rovers and heading up East Africa. They’re being beaten to it by another friend who’s planning a similar trip in December, sans Land Rovers. But in December my brother will be in Mozambique, which is rapidly becoming an awesome tourist destination (helps when there is no longer a civil war involving land mines). We of course went skiing in early August, but the same people are off ski-diving soon, marking time with sailing this weekend and hiking in the Drakensberg mountains next weekend. I’d love to go, but we (the family) are off to Hogsback, the family place in another set of mountains. Our place is so old it doesn’t have electricity, so it’ll be back to cellphone tethering for Internet.

I have about three plans for new projects at the moment, between the Thornhill work, and my aunt in parliament is hooking me up with all sorts of awesome people to maybe make some of them happen. Pity that leaves no time to, well, find somewhere to live. More details if and when the plans come together.

And to round off the craziness, I stopped at a petrol station recently, and the attendant was obviously having an unusual day. Apparently that morning a lady had offered him R50 000 (almost $10 000) to kill her (ie., assist in suicide) while she was sleeping. He took the money, but went to the police, found the lady’s family, gave them the money back and took them to her. There was, of course, much ensuing drama.

Oh, and the petrol was expensive.