Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reuters: Blow-ups 'make it safe'

This short article appeared in today's News24.com. I can see something like this actually taking off in South Africa, with the number of car hijackings we have. It will make for great humour as well...

Blow-ups 'make it safe': "London - He fits in a car's glove box, appears at a flick of a switch and when a woman has finished using him, she can just pull the plug and he deflates.

He's the 'Buddy on Demand', a blow-up man launched on Tuesday with the aim of making solo female motorists feel less nervous about driving at night.

According to research by the inflatable friend's creator, insurer Sheilas' Wheels, 82% of women feel safer with someone sitting in the car beside them and nearly a half don't like driving alone in the dark.

'We're not saying that an inflatable man is the only answer but we do hope it will give women extra confidence and make journeys in the dark less fearful,' said Jacky Brown, the spokesperson for Sheilas' Wheels."

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

BBC NEWS: India bloggers angry at net ban

The comments that follow relates to an article on the website of BBC News (online edition) today. The Indian blogging community is up in arms (a lot of Indian bloggers at least...) about the banning of a number of blogs by the Indian government, scroll down for excerpts and a link to the story.

I'm an avid reader of Time Magazine. It offers a limited amount of reading per issue, as opposed to some of its more weighty competitors, but tends to have interesting features in manageable portions. The first issue of July featured India. It had some really interesting comments in regard to the country's entrepreneurial spirit. Having noticed the article below on today's BBC News online edition, two elements of Time's feature comes to mind.

Time noted that much of India's economic boom is due to the entrepreneurial spirit of individuals, pursuing opportunities brought about by globalization and the internet - regardless of the government not coming to the party. The latter being stated in the context of bureaucracy, poor service delivery and generally poor infrastructure.

The Magazine also noted that India's economy was booming because it is a (the most populous) democracy. Within the unrestricted realms of a democracy, regardless of the government's poor performance, individuals have the opportunity to excel - only requiring drive, innovation and skills. Time contrasts India with China more than once, with the editorial staff's American bias for the former -because of its democratic nature- coming through quite strongly. It is argued that ultimately the Indian model is more viable, by virtue of being based on the freedom entailed in a democracy. In the long run it has to outperform the centrist, restricted and top-down Chinese model.

Although Time's coverage is peppered (or spiced?) with a good dose of American idealism, it does ring true. Especially if you prescribe to democratic values... It has to be said that major failures / challenges in Indian society (poverty, Aids, etc.) is not glossed over by the feature. Time also points out that the success of India's IT industry has lead to an increase in wages, moving some of India's IT giants to, ironically, look towards outsourcing some functions (read jobs).

Having read the above mentioned feature and having been quite impressed by India's promising future, the BBC article below comes as a bit of a disappointment. It could easily be blown out of proportion, I know. However, it is a worrying development. Freedom of speech should ideally have no barriers. Never mind how many people are offended by the contents of a particular blog. One can only hope that this is a trend that will die in its infancy and not be allowed to mature. The seemingly strong response from India's blogging community is a good start. I hope India will not start copying the bad habits of its nemesis China. Then who will the West bet on as its favoured emerging super power...?

(This story provide interesting similarities with an issue on which I blogged earlier this month, under the caption Citizens, bloggers & the 'Fourth Estate')

BBC NEWS South Asia India bloggers angry at net ban: "India's burgeoning blogging community is up in arms against a government directive that they say has led to the blocking of their web logs.

The country's 153 internet service providers (ISP) have blocked 17 websites since last week on federal government orders.

Some of these sites belong to Google's Blogspot, a leading international web log hosting service.

Indian bloggers say that the decision is an attack on freedom of speech...

...A federal government notification of July 2003 says it can ban websites in the interest of:

  • sovereignty or integrity of India
  • security of the state
  • friendly relations with foreign states and public order
  • preventing incitement to commissioning of any cognisable offences.

The sites that have been banned include ones with right-wing Hindu links and an anti-Communist one. At least four of them are on the Blogspot hosting service."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Johannesburg Rises Above Its Apartheid Past - New York Times

I'm a great fan of the New York Times (NYT) - online edition. Their articles are often on the long side, but very informative. While some may be put off by the fact that the NYT definitely caters for Democrats (as in supporters of the USA's Democratic Party), it mostly provides ample exposure for various conflicting opinions on the same issue - where applicable.

As a South African, active in our tourism industry, I'm always very curious to read foreign perspectives on our product in general, or specific attractions / destinations within South Africa or the greater region (Southern Africa).

Sometimes, with some of the enquiries we get at Africa Deluxe Tours for South African tours, potential clients will clearly state that they want to avoid Johannesburg at all cost. This is due to their perceptions of it being a very dangerous destination, because of high crime levels.

Truth be told, it can indeed be a very dangerous place - especially if you don't know it. We normally recommend visitors to include Johannesburg in their itineraries (depending on what they want to get out of their travels of course), but that they make use of a reputable operator in doing so. Otherwise they may well run into trouble. The main reason for using a reputable operator, in this case, has to do with safety considerations. However, a tourist guide -if (s)he's worth his salt- will also add a lot of value in unlocking an unknown city for you. This is especially true of a destination like Soweto (part of Johannesburg), which features a culture and way of life alien to most non-African visitors.

Today's NYT includes a very well written, very comprehensive, article on visiting Johannesburg by Michael Wines. One irony in this article, is the recommended hotel at the end of it, taking into account what the writer had to say about Melrose Arch... The same goes for the Moyo Restaurant, also located in Melrose Arch. Having said that, I agree with his assessment of Melrose Arch - and at the same time agree that both the hotel and restaurant would make a worthwhile visit for most tourists. The hotel is a very funky, designer-type, establishment with off-the-wall humor in its room interiors. It will appeal to a hip crowd, definitely not your style if you prefer colonial establishments. The restaurant provides a vibey, fresh, African experience - often with live entertainment.

I agree with the author that tourists should venture out of the wealthy northern suburbs, which may feel quite familiar to western visitors. Venturing into the city centre and Soweto, once again in the company of a local tour operator / tourist guide, will provide much more unusual experiences and insights. However, don't shun the northern suburbs, as here to, there is much to learn about modern-day South Africa.

Excerpts and a link to the article follows below:

Johannesburg Rises Above Its Apartheid Past - New York Times: "TAKE the M1 freeway south, past the spas and high-end restaurants of Melrose Arch, through the leafy suburb of Houghton and past the nearby clubs and galleries of Melville. Go past all that, and past downtown's concrete towers and the booming Newtown cultural district, and get off at Rissik Street. Just a block away, in the shadow of the elevated freeway's pillars, there awaits the finest selection of porcupine skin and baboon entrails in all Africa...

...Yet many South Africans insist that it is the one city that no visitor should miss. At more than six million people, it is the biggest city in South Africa and the most transformed. Twenty years ago, much of Johannesburg was the preserve of South Africa's white minority. Today, it is a stewpot of colors and languages, the fruit not only of liberation but also of a huge influx of immigrants and refugees. Johannesburg is a place where purveyors of muti - the porcupine skins, ground herbs and baboon entrails touted as cure-alls for everything from flatulence to flagging love affairs - hawk their wares a few blocks from skyscrapers....
...A proper place to begin is the Apartheid Museum (http://www.apartheidmuseum.org/), near Soweto, a powerful series of exhibits and multimedia presentations documenting the last century's oppression. Visitors begin the journey with a pass arbitrarily labeling them white or nonwhite; inside, the concrete-and-steel space, with nooses hung from the ceiling and exhibits caged in wire or trapped behind bars, brings home apartheid's brutality with unusual force.
Soweto, a city of more than a million people, is rife with reminders of that brutality. The Hector Pieterson memorial and museum in the Orlando West neighborhood recounts the 1976 Soweto riots, the event that sounded apartheid's death knell. Orlando West is also the world's only neighborhood that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and the Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu..."

Monday, July 03, 2006

Qwelane: " SABC's Snuki 'plain bad news' "

Jon Qwelane is a columnist who, amongst other outlets, is published weekly on News24.com. In a column published today he takes up the topic of my previous post. Qwelane tends to be extremely outspoken and seems to like stoking a bit of controversy now and then. With most of his columns someone ends up being seriously unhappy. In this case, I believe, most readers would heartily support his views. Excerpt and link to the column follows below:

SABC's Snuki 'plain bad news': "The sticky pickle in which the SABC finds itself is one of its own making and, in my opinion, there is absolutely no need for an internal inquiry - which, I believe, lacks credibility anyway - but there still is a way out of the mess.

The solution is quite simple really: chief executive Dali Mpofu must fire his news executive head, Snuki Zikalala, immediately.

Zikalala is the reason some cynics are now derisively saying SABC is the abbreviation of Snuki African Broadcasting Circus, and I can see their dejected point of view quite clearly."

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Citizens, bloggers & the 'Fourth Estate'

On 30 June 2006 Lizette Rabe, head of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, wrote in a News24.com article:

Become more media savvy: "It's not only a matter of being media literate, to be able to read between the lines, that enables us to understand any given news, whether in print, broadcast or new media.

It is also knowing about your rights as a citizen in terms of freedom of expression - and how it is or is not manipulated by those who think they have a right to decide what others may think and say."

Summarising and paraphrasing freely the article argues the following: South Africa's media freedom is largely dependent on citizen's appreciation of their constitutional right to freedom of expression. When 'apparatchiks' of the public broadcaster claim the right to manage how journalists cover the news, even indirectly, one has to be worried. While South Africa boasts a 'well-developed media infrastructure' we need 'media literacy campaigns' to create awareness of the important role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy. In protecting the Fourth Estate, an emerging "Fifth Estate" (bloggers) is sometimes mentioned as protector of the former - but this is not the solution. Members of the media have to fend for themselves by standing up to undue interference.

Her comments follow on two disturbing incidents in recent times. The one is a decision by the powers that be at the public broadcaster (SABC) to cancel, at the last moment, the broadcast of a 'un-authorised'-style documentary on President Thabo Mbeki. The other is the revelation that journalists at the SABC were instructed to avoid using a number of commentators in putting together news stories. What the blacklisted commentators seem to have in common is critical views of President Mbeki and the policies of the ruling ANC government. In both cases the SABC aggressively defended itself against accusations of censorship, but commentators and other sections of the media cried foul. The SABC at first flatly denied the blacklisting of some commentators, but reverted to an enquiry into the matter after a SAFM (English radio service) presenter confirmed on air that he in the past received instructions not to interview some commentators.

With accusations and counter-accusations flying around it's always difficult to form a clear picture of what's going on behind the scenes. However, to paraphrase an Afrikaans expression, where there's smoke there's a fire. That is, while the finer details may be disputed, it is clear that all is not right.

Is media freedom under threat in South Africa?
What was sorely missing in the whole saga, at least in the coverage that I was exposed to, is a strong and unequivocal statement from the SABC and the cabinet on the importance of, and their respect for, the media's freedom. Pleading ignorance and discrediting your accusers is not a satisfying answer to the core question - is media freedom under threat in present day South Africa? Truth be told, we have never before seen the impressive media freedom in South Africa, that has become a feature of our democracy since 1994.

Citizens of any country, including ours, cannot take this extremely important pillar of democracy for granted. If it crumbles, the whole democratic temple will follow suit. In the bigger picture of the South African media the two incidents that has caused so much discussion is in my view an exception, rather than being the rule. However, the way the SABC and cabinet responded to the accusations, is cause for concern. It suggests that in the case of the public broadcaster much more pressure needs to be applied to guard against the cancer of censorship.

I believe the privately owned media is at present more or less free from undue interference from their owners. Most definitely something to be thankful for.

Citizens' role in protecting media freedom?
But what to do about the SABC and its 'owner'? That journalists should have the courage of their conviction to stand up against even the mildest form of censorship, is a given. Where this does not happen all hope is lost. But what about the rest of society. Can we play a role?

The idealistic answer is 'hell yes!'. In practice it's not so simple. The management of the SABC is not elected and often not seen by the general public as their servants. This is off-course a misconception. In this sense Ms Rabe's contention that South Africa needs 'media literacy campaigns' makes a lot of sense. The media often performs well in informing, reminding and educating citizens on important events in the past. Programmes and content around Youth Day (commemorating the Soweto uprising of 1976), Sharpville, etc. come to mind. Sometimes the coverage of these events take on an almost religious element.

However, in taking a critical view of current affairs and policy implications for the future the same vigor is not always displayed - especially at the SABC. The South African public needs to reminded by the well covered events of the past, that if the Fourth Estate does not function freely the first three estates (government) is bound to get up to no good (think blacked-out sentences on the front page of South African newspapers in the 80's...). We as citizens should think about the dangers of any level of censorship today in those kind of terms. Even a government voted in by the kind of majority the ANC received in the last election should still continuously be put under the microscope. Being elected is a responsibility, not a chance to do as you please.

Blogging community
I was intrigued by Ms Rabe's mentioning of the Blogging community as the 'Fifth Estate'. Being new to the act of Blogging it creates the temptation in me of taking on an air of smug self-importance. Uh-hum, I'm looking out for your rights bro - I'm a blogger! However, she shoots down that notion in her very next sentence. I concur. The media's role is unique and cannot be substituted by blogging. In fact, the notion could be quite dangerous. Bloggers answer only to themselves and are notoriously subjective. While it is an obvious fact that no media outlet is fully objective, the profession of journalism is a well established and developed one. It does have checks and balances built into it and tend to be transparent. Blogging is all too often a bunch of ignorant hooligans who rant of subjective, untested and unbalanced arguments and statements. Often blogging is an act of activism, rather than empowering readers through information. Covering contradicting viewpoints in a fair and balanced manner is something I've seldom encountered in the bloggosphere.

Still, even though the medium is very much flawed, it does have an important role to play when it comes to civil liberties such as freedom of expression. In the ideal world we still mingle with the people in our street and know our neighbours by first name. In the real world we don't. Most of us are buried in work, we socialize and discuss issues with a small group of like-minded close friends or associates in our very limited spare time. This can be replicated on the Net off-course, but you can also choose to talk to strangers as much as you like.

In the world of blogging, as opposed to chat-rooms and news groups, you can get to know strangers intimately in terms of their thought processes. Something which normally takes weeks, months or years in the real world. Multiply this hundreds of times and a potentially life-enriching experience awaits you. It's like walking through a massive stadium where scores of people are huddled in small groups discussing interesting (or frivolous...) subjects. You are free to walk around and join or leave a discussion without being frowned upon. The guy who happens to be speaking can do so uninterrupted for as long as he/she likes.

If you walk around enough you will get to hear really smart people with interesting opinions or fascinating tales to tell. In short you can deepen you insight on just about any topic under the sun. You can do so by talking and listening to people who you would never meet in real life and may not feel comfortable meeting in the company of your like-minded real life friends. In a space like this, questioning and discussing at length the state of civil liberties can progress unhindered (unless you're living in China or the like...).

I suppose a difference between the (electronic & print) media and the bloggosphere is that the former speaks to millions at the same time while the latter speaks (potentially) to thousands or even millions on a personal level one at a time. Try to tell your breakfast programme presenter that his/her take on an event is totally skewed and shortsighted...

So how can blogging assist in protecting the Fourth Estate? One way is probably by making netizen-citizens used to exercising freedom of expression on the Net, unhindered. The idea of a state apparatchik censoring your blog or limiting which opinions you may quote in it is simply absurd. The extension of this to the journalist delivering your dose of daily news is obvious.