Monday, September 22, 2014

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Thundering Towards Thirty

An iconic record company is out of hibernation to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Under normal circumstances, it would seem odd that a long moribund label would have a Lazarus moment which was more than a sigh, let alone a joyous cry of celebration. Odd, but South Africa is an odd place, and Shifty Records was the asylum catering to some of the oddest of them all.

It is not an exaggeration to say that a highly disproportionate number of our favourite artists were on this tiny label with its studio in a caravan and which was run from ramshackle offices in the bohemian suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg.

It was the label for the street poets, the ‘alternative Afrikaners’ and the damaged songwriters chronicling their personal and political demons as the Apartheid system gargled its terrifying death rattle and the first cries of the infant democracy signalled a new life beyond fear and repression.

In the mid-1990s, the label stopped releasing new material and was effectively mothballed. More recently, the ease of digital distribution presented the opportunity for labels to re-release older catalogue and archive material, and the folks behind Shifty seized it with enthusiasm. Finally, albums by Simba Morri and The Kerels − long out of print on vinyl and never released on CD − could be made available once more. Then, the Shifty team of Lloyd Ross and Warwick Sony went even further, digging up tapes of unreleased material by Dread Warrior, Winston’s Jivemixup and others, including the full Free People's Concert recording from 1987.

On 24 September, a huge celebratory concert is being held in Johannesburg featuring many of the artists − most now household names, at least in South Africa − who got their start in the music business on the Shifty label. In this episode, we play some tracks by the artists who will be performing at the Shifty Heritage Concert. These include:

  • The Genuines
  • Jennifer Ferguson
  • Jonathan “Rat” Handley
  • Kalahari Surfers
  • The Kerels
  • Matthew van der Want
  • Rian Malan
  • Robin Auld
  • Simba Morri
  • Tananas
  • Tony Cox
  • Urban Creep
  • Van Der Want/Letcher
  • Vusi Mahlasela

Sadly, not the whole Shifty family will be at the concert. James Phillips died tragically in 1995 after a car accident at the Grahamstown Festival; a year later, another horrific car accident claimed the life of several members of Sankomota; while guitarist Frank Mooki Leepa died in 2003; and Johannes Kerkorrel took his own live in 2002.

Shifty is also fundraising for a range of related ventures, including the release of the legendary “lost” James Phillips album. But we'll let Lloyd Ross explain:

If you can’t be at the concert on the 24th, why not treat yourself to some of the goodies − including digital compilations − at the Shifty Thunderfund page, or enjoy this episode of Tune Me What, which introduces you to all the featured artists.

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit tunemewhat.com or facebook.com/TuneMeWhat.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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Freetown, Sierra Leone:

It's midnight and I am driving around the East End of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, with a young taxi driver known as Human Right. For the past year, I have regularly been accompanying Human Right on journeys picking up passengers as part of my doctoral research in anthropology. The East End is usually buzzing at night, every junction packed with people drinking, eating street food, and hanging out. But today there are only a handful of passengers. "The streets are dry," Human Right tells me.

The slowing down of the rainy season normally leads to there being more people on the streets, which means more business for many, including drivers, but in the past month, Sierra Leone’s government has issued numerous restrictions to tackle the country’s Ebola outbreak. Motorbike taxis are running on a limited basis during daylight hours. Places of assembly, such as bars, cinemas and schools, are closed countrywide. Travel in and out of the outbreak epicentres in the east of the country is severely restricted. Many people do not have places to go, or money to spend.

Human Right comments that the elite in the country are not suffering from the Ebola epidemic the way that ordinary people are. And he is far from alone in feeling that some are even benefiting personally from the donations being made by the international community and local big businesses. These elites also have a lower risk of infection than those who work on the streets.

We approach a police checkpoint as we head downtown. They pull us over and point out various problems with the car, threatening to take us to the police station. As expected, Human Right gives them a portion of his earnings and we continue. With fewer drivers on the streets, the traffic police, who gain an income through bribes and fines, are resorting to harsher penalties. Human Right is confident that the crisis will end soon; the dry weather will kill the virus, which thrives, he believes, in wet conditions.

But some are less confident. Abdul Johnson is a police officer, a neighbour of mine and a drinking buddy. A few months ago, when the boundaries between ‘Ebola’ as rumour, conspiracy and reality were hard to separate for myself and many around me, Abdul was sceptical. He suggested that Ebola was fabricated by the government to siphon international aid money, or that it is part of a terrorist plot to drain the country’s resources. Now, like many others, he is critical of the government for not acting more quickly when the outbreak started in neighbouring Guinea, allowing the virus to fester and spread. These suspicions of the government are not uncommon or necessarily unfounded. They reflect people’s genuine experiences of corruption and inequality.

Additionally, it is easy for people here to feel a sense of disconnect between their own experiences and the international media reports that place them in the heart of a global crisis. People that I speak to insist that they do not know anyone who has Ebola; the epicentres of the outbreak are in the east of the country, several hours drive from Freetown. They point out that Sierra Leoneans suffer all the time in multiple ways, but rarely get the international attention and relief that is being directed at Ebola.

Abdul compares this experience of disconnect to that which residents of Freetown experienced during the country’s devastating civil war from 1991-2002. For most of those years. the war, which started when rebels crossed the Liberian border, did not ‘reach’ Freetown. Most of the fighting took place in the provinces − the same regions that are currently most affected. Thousands fled to the capital, but for long periods it was hard to travel, because, like now, roads were often heavily policed or blocked. But life continued in Freetown, albeit with an even greater sense of uncertainty than normal, until the city was invaded in January 1999 with disastrous consequences.

A similar sense of ambiguity about the future is strongly felt in Freetown today. It is not just school and work that are put on hold or limited, but key life events. Abdul is waiting until the restrictions on gatherings are lifted − and also until more money becomes available − to perform the naming ceremony for his newborn son. Most people I know are waiting for normality and greater clarity, rather than disaster.

One such person is Hawa Bangura, who runs a small grocery shop outside her mother’s house in my neighbourhood of Congo Town. She set up the shop in partnership with her boyfriend, Arthur, who works as a receptionist at a guesthouse and restaurant frequented by expats. Hawa is halfway through a four-year university course in Financial Services, but she doesn't know if term will start as usual next month.

Arthur meanwhile has been laid off until further notice; most potential customers have left the country and most airlines have stopped flying to Sierra Leone. This puts more pressure on Hawa, as Arthur, along with other family members, is now relying solely on the shop. At the same time, the prices of items the shop stocks have risen. Many goods sold in Sierra Leone are imported through Guinea, but with the border currently closed, they are either smuggled at great cost, or sourced elsewhere. Some produce from Sierra Leone, such as coal and palm oil, is also hard to purchase now that the luma, the weekly produce markets, have been banned.

The situation is changing every day, but the vast majority of Freetown residents have yet to witness at firsthand a case of Ebola. Yet everything seems to be affected by the disease. As the dominant topic of conversation, ‘Ebola’ can simultaneously act as a vehicle for humour and absurdity, as when friends almost shake hands but then comically decide against it; a source of anger and sadness; and a medium for criticism and suspicion. Knowing what to believe and who to trust is not easy, and many do not consider themselves to be at risk of catching the virus itself. But the harsh economic realities of the crisis are inescapable. 

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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During the early hours of 30 August, soldiers in Lesotho surrounded the country’s police headquarters and Prime Minister’s residence, cutting power in the capital Maseru and shutting down radio stations for several hours.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and the newly-appointed commander of the armed forces, Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao, who both reportedly escaped assassination attempts, fled to neighboring South Africa, which surrounds the small landlocked country of two million people. Thabane, and a South African Foreign Ministry spokesman, both declared that the military actions bore "the hallmarks of a coup d’état." Other observers were a bit more cautious, such as the US which issued a statement urging peaceful dialogue.

While the precise details surrounding the events are still hazy, there are some important lessons to be drawn. Most importantly, making sense of Lesotho’s conflict, however fluid at the moment, will help provide a path out of the current crisis. Although political analysts, and even avid Africa watchers, routinely ignore Lesotho, deeming it an inconsequential backwater, its political trajectory will be instrumental in shaping the future of not only South Africa, the region’s superpower, but also that of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the 15-state regional bloc of which Lesotho and South Africa are members.

Roots of the unrest

The root cause of the outbreak of violence in Lesotho was the result of a breakdown of the coalition government, which has occupied power since 2012. Serious political fissures began to open in June of this year when Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), announced an agreement with the Democratic Congress (DC) – the largest party in parliament and official opposition – to pass a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Thabane, leader of the All Basotho Convention (ABC). Sensing that his political fate was hanging in the balance, Thabane suspended parliament, precluding his political foes from unseating him through democratic processes. To complicate matters more, Thabane had recently spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign, ensnaring Metsing in what would have likely been an embarrassing and drawn-out court case, slated to begin this month.

The escalation of hostilities was also the result of entrenched alliances between members of Lesotho’s governing coalition and certain branches of the security forces, namely the army and police. The decision by Thabane to replace the head of the army, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, with his ally Mahao, was seen as an underhand and self-serving move by those outside Thabane’s camp.

Shortly after the violence had subsided, Lesotho’s main political actors convened in Pretoria, South Africa, for a meeting that included the host country’s president and regional powerbroker, Jacob Zuma. In a bid to restore a semblance of normalcy, Prime Minister Thabane agreed to reopen Parliament on 19 September.

Much at stake

The ongoing turmoil matters deeply to ordinary Basotho, many of who are concerned about access to basic services like electricity and the human security that comes with the rule of law and a functioning democracy. Given the precarious economic fortunes experienced by many across the country, the average person can ill-afford disruptions to their schooling, jobs, and livelihoods. While gross national income, according to the World Bank, has steadily risen for over a decade, the country has yet to make that growth accessible to all Basotho, the majority of whom still live below the national poverty line.

Nevertheless, the country remains one of only a handful of countries in SADC to be rated “free” by human rights watchdog Freedom House, and one of only ten African countries overall to achieve that designation. Lesotho has also improved in areas of vital social significance that could portend a more prosperous future. According to the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, for example, Lesotho outpaces many of its African counterparts in two main categories: Safety and the Rule of Law, as well as Participation and Human Rights. Towards that end, Lesotho has been considered, until very recently, a relative success story on a continent of which headlines are unfortunately – and often unfairly – dominated by coups, corruption, and general human suffering.

Lesotho is also one of only three countries (four, if you count Malawi) in the SADC region to experience a transition of political party in the executive by means of elections, the others being Zambia and Mauritius. The Basotho people regained democratic rule in the early 1990s, by largely peaceful means, and there was hope that the new coalition government represented a maturing democracy.

The longer Lesotho’s political uncertainty drags on, however, the greater the likelihood of disastrous disruptions to the lives of ordinary Basotho, and for the country as a whole. Much of Lesotho’s economy depends on the manufacturing sector, which constitutes upwards of 30% of its gross domestic product (GDP). What's more, nearly 100% of Lesotho’s exports fall under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade preference programme that gives duty-free treatment to goods going to the US. These jobs could easily disappear if Lesotho’s government cannot ensure safety, or if the instability caused its borders to close. Revoking a country’s AGOA status is not unprecedented, happening previously during unrest in the Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea, Madagascar, and most recently in nearby Swaziland.

Lesotho’s instability could also have wider resonance on resource conflicts beyond its borders. Gauteng Province, the administrative, industrial, and mining heartland of South Africa – and arguably the SADC region – relies heavily on access to Lesotho’s water supply. South Africa’s leaders are well aware that when they bathe, cook, and enjoy a swim, they do so with water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a massive 30-year multi-billion dollar cooperative venture between Lesotho and South Africa. The latter’s interest in Lesotho’s domestic affairs stems in part from its water, but there is a longer history of intervention, demonstrated by repeated attempts over the years to shape the leaders in power to conform to South African interests.

Leabua Jonathan, elected Lesotho’s Prime Minister at independence in 1965, for instance, clung to power for decades after his 1970 electoral defeat because B.J. Vorster’s apartheid regime funded his military. By 1982, however, after Jonathan openly criticised his neighbor, Vorster’s military raided Maseru, killing many African National Congress (ANC) refugees in addition to scores of innocent Basotho civilians. Growing increasingly disillusioned with Jonathan, the South African government then sealed Lesotho’s borders in 1986, barring the delivery of food, petrol, and other necessities, prompting Lesotho’s military to oust Jonathan by force. These military leaders, largely dependent on South Africa’s backing, then quickly signed the long-discussed water project treaty. South Africa again invaded Lesotho in 1998 at the head of a SADC intervention force after disputed elections, leveling swaths of Maseru’s commercial district. The subsequent economic ruin remains visible to this day.

Beyond South Africa, there is also a need to foster greater stability and advance core democratic principles in the region. In this regard, Lesotho has an important, and perhaps outsized role to play. SADC has experienced significant setbacks with general declines in political rights and civil liberties in many of its member countries over the past several years. By contrast, Lesotho’s coalition government, elected in 2012, marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the country, ushering in the continent’s only coalition government under a Westminster system as a result of elections. Just as important, the elections were declared “free and fair” by all international observers, including the African Union and SADC— no small feat for a region historically replete with fraudulent elections.

Compromise is key

The 2012 elections that brought together Lesotho’s governing coalition inspired feelings of genuine hope and optimism. There was a sense that an important corner had been turned − that the self-interest of political leaders could take a backseat to compromise and pragmatism. While these high hopes have been somewhat dashed over the past week, a new survey suggests that faith in democracy remains strong, with a majority of Basotho saying elections are the best means for selecting leaders. In the same survey, the fact that six out of ten voters reported being dissatisfied with “the way democracy works” should be read as an indictment of the political leaders and current party structures rather than as an indictment of electoral democracy itself.

Lesotho’s politicians have shown themselves at the best of times to be capable of governing for the common good. An example of this was the Universal Old Age Pension Scheme of 2004, which was one of the first attempts by a low-income country to effectively care for its aging population through direct payments. The success of this programme in providing basic social services is impressive, but from a political standpoint, the pensions have also helped build trust between citizens and the government.

This final point is noteworthy as it offers a way forward. With a degree of outside pressure – and it will have to be light given Lesotho’s past – a sustainable compromise is possible. Having SADC members with reasonably good records of democratisation, such as Botswana and Mauritius, to help negotiate a grand bargain is a good place to start. A truly sustainable compromise must also incorporate dialogue with key domestic actors, not only politicians and leaders of the security forces, but civil society too, including religious leaders and NGOs.

The key to unlocking Lesotho’s immediate and long-term stability will be for its leaders to embrace a strategy of compromise and to govern with an eye towards the common good rather than one premised on political posturing and brazen self-interest. The latter approach has clearly led Lesotho astray, embroiling the country, and now SADC, in renewed turmoil.

It is not too late to get the country back on track.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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In July, I wrote about some research that Health Poverty Action published in collaboration with 12 other UK and African NGOs. This research compared Africa’s annual financial losses to the rest of the world, in comparison with aid and other resources flowing in. It shows that Africa has a net loss of $58 billion each year, a large part of which is a direct result of policies and practices in donor countries. My article and the wider report argued that this provides a challenge to the deeply entrenched narrative in the UK and other donor countries about the way that they ‘aid’ Africa.

The article and the overall work has provoked much feedback. Most of it positive. It’s been called 'brave', 'much needed' and 'vital'. We’ve also faced criticism, including accusations by both African and European readers that we’ve overlooked corruption in Africa to point the finger solely at donor countries. Some have even suggested that in highlighting the role of the Global North in underlying Africa’s loss of resources, we in fact reinforce a paternalistic narrative about the North as the ones whose action is needed to ‘save’ Africa − the very point that we sought to undermine. So here I want to clarify the intention of the report and also what, as a UK-headquartered NGO, we believe the role and limitations of organisations like ourselves are in this debate.

Firstly, the purpose of the report was never to examine all the different reasons for Africa’s poverty. It was to expose the dishonest narrative which falsely suggests that the rest of the world is generously aiding Africa, whilst ignoring its own role in Africa’s poverty. That does not mean we do not think that corruption in Africa is a problem. It is. And it is totally legitimate, indeed vital, that African civil society draws attention to it. There are many examples of African civil society organisations working to hold African leaders to account. If my article had been written by one of them, it might be different. But we are not African civil society, though we work closely with it. For me to sit in London and point the figure at African leaders without addressing the actions of my own country’s leaders would be hypocritical. It would also overlook the wider context: that global structures, policies and practices, often under the jurisdiction of Northern countries, fuel corruption in Africa.

To give one example: the UK, through its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, is responsible for ten tax havens − more than any other country. The secrecy and lack of accountability in tax haven structures enable both corporations and wealthy elites to channel their money out of Africa to be held offshore.

These structures further facilitate corruption, providing a channel through which the proceeds of crime, corruption and weapons can flow. A World Bank analysis of 213 cases of large-scale corruption between 1980 and 2010 found that 70% of cases used anonymous shell companies. Those registered in the UK and its crown dependencies and overseas territories were the second biggest offenders, behind the US. 

In 2013, the UK made it even easier for British companies − amongst the most active in Africa − to dodge taxes overseas, removing regulations which required companies repatriating profits to the UK through tax havens to pay the difference between the tax haven and the UK rate of tax. This rule now only applies to profits made in the UK, meaning that a UK-based company with subsidiaries in Africa can shift money out of Africa into tax havens and pay no extra tax when its profits return to the UK. This change alone was predicted to cost countries in the Global South an extra $4 billion annually.

Some also consider the City of London itself to be a tax haven. This is a result of its partial exemption from transparency regulations, the bizarre fact that its corporations are allowed to vote alongside citizens in local elections, and its dubious honour of having the only non-elected representative to sit on the floor of the House of Commons – a figure called the Remembrancer whose function is to influence legislation in favour of the City of London financial sector.

These facts do not often make it into the British media. Yet, in contrast, there is no shortage of information on corruption in Africa. Repeated media reports discuss corruption in countries in receipt of British aid, prompting an idea that British taxpayers are handing out money to Africa, only for it to be squandered by corrupt states. This narrative can also be seen in professional development circles in which ‘good governance’ is often discussed as if it is purely a problem overseas, whilst the UK is lauded – often by UK-based NGOs – as a leader in international development.

This misleading reflection feeds a dishonest and paradoxical narrative. Is not claiming the title of leader in international development whilst presiding over a structure that facilitates the loss of billions from some of the world’s poorest countries each year a form of corruption itself? It might not be captured on the Corruption Index, but this is only because it is more subtle, more pervasive, and based on deeply entrenched power structures.

We do not intend to suggest that African leaders are blameless or that it is only the North that can solve Africa’s problems. But we are in no doubt that it is playing a hand in them. If the UK is going to accept the title of ‘leader in international development’, it should get its own house in order. It’s time it took responsibility for its actions and it’s time we in the North held it to account.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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“Repeatedly shot as they tried to surrender,” says Greg Marinovich. “Not just once. Coming up − two, three times with their hands in the air − shot repeatedly.”

Marinovich is a photojournalist who closely covered the so-called Marikana massacre of August 2012 in which 34 striking mine workers were shot dead by police. According to him, the police's story of acting in innocent self-defence is a lie. “They went and carried on hunting down people, for twenty minutes.”

Interviewed by Rehad Desai in his new documentary, Miners Shot Down, Marinovich’s words form part of a forensic case built up over the course of the film that forcefully indicts the police, the government and the Lonmin mining company for their respective roles in the most deadly display of state violence witnessed in post-apartheid South Africa. It may have been rank-and-file police officers pulling the triggers, but, Desai’s film concludes, it is those at the top – “those who pulled the strings” – who bear greatest responsibility. “Heads need to roll at a very high level,” agues Ronnie Kasrils, a former minister for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and outspoken critic of President Jacob Zuma’s government.

To date, not one policeman has been charged for what took place at Marikana, victims have been both blamed and put on trial, and suspicions of a cover-up stubbornly linger. Miners Shot Down – drawing upon evidence presented to the Commission of Inquiry, which is still ongoing, and some original material – interrogates the lines of communication descending from the government down to the foot soldiers, suggesting professional failings of incompetence and corruption. Who ordered the use of live ammunition? What was the nature of the relationship between the police and Lonmin, and between Lonmin and the ANC? Why has no police office or government minister been held accountable, whereas 270 of the miners faced common purpose murder charges (until they were belatedly dropped last month)?

These are the questions that ought to detain the official inquiry, though Desai is sceptical of the integrity of the process and doubtful it will produce satisfactory results. But the film goes further, situating the events of Marikina within a context wider than that of police or government corruption. As Desai reflects in the film’s opening scenes, Marikana can be placed along a historical road leading from Sharpesville in 1960 via Soweto in 1976: a mass killing uncomfortably redolent of the massacres of apartheid, reminding citizens of the new South Africa that the arrival of formal democracy has not brought about the full dismantling of the apartheid state.

Rather, Mariknana was a thoroughly familiar event: as Charlayne Hunter-Gault wrote in the New Yorker at the time: “The bloody episode in this eighteen-year-old black-majority democracy takes many back to the days of white-minority rule, when policemen routinely fired on and killed thousands of South Africans fighting for their freedom.” The real meaning of Marikana, Jerome Roos argued, is that it showed how “the violence of the state simply reasserted itself anew under the ANC.”

As Miners Shot Down tells it, Marikana was a pre-eminently South African tragedy. It demonstrated how the legacy of apartheid – particularly the centuries-old collusion between foreign capital and government violence − continues to undergird the character of the new South African state. Furthermore, it offered a graphic illustration of the extent to which the once radical leaders of the ANC and their allies, the trade unions, have been co-opted by the country’s established capitalist elites.

It is for this reason that Desai’s interviews with Cyril Ramaphosa stand out as some of the film’s most unsettling and memorable scenes. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ramaphosa was renowned for being a hero of the trade unions movement, an apartheid-fighting ANC grandee, and Nelson Mandela's favoured successor. But by 2012, he was perhaps better known for having amassed vast personal wealth through his business interests and, at the time of Marikana, was a board member of Lonmin. Despite the controversy over his role in the massacre, he shortly later rose to the position of Deputy President of the ANC, though his recent appearance at the Marikana Inquiry was momentarily held up as victims' families chanted "blood on his hands."

Delivered in a silky, feline manner, the former anti-apartheid hero’s trite bromides and frustrating doublespeak in the documentary powerfully encapsulate the pedestrian present of Zuma’s ANC: “We always have strikes, because we have such a robust democratic system that allows workers to express themselves”, he opines. “And people should never be alarmed: this is the South African way.” As Desai notes at the film’s close, Ramaphosa’s business interests have helped him amass a personal fortune of $700 million – which perhaps suggests that the persistent dominance of a corrupt alliance between business and government is an altogether closer approximate of the “South African way.”

That Marikana was a product of South Africa’s particular history is true in other important senses, although Desai’s film does not quite touch upon them. One of the enduring characteristics of the South African economy is its migrant labour system. The centrality of this system to the Lonmin mine is a crucial part of the Marikina story, since the majority of mineworkers in Marikana are from the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and Mozambique. Desai’s film, while highlighting the problem of low wages and poor working conditions as the primary cause of the strike, sidelines the equally important point that low wages and poor working conditions have always characterised the mining industry in South Africa. By cutting men off from their families, the system enabled mining companies to pay poverty-level wages and provide single-sex compound housing while their families back home in the ‘Tribal Homelands’ (‘labour reserves’) struggled to subsist.

In order to bring out this aspect of miner’s struggle, the film could perhaps have benefitted from closer engagement with the miners themselves. The near total absence of miners’ families from the film is indicative of the fact that these miners are almost entirely isolated from their communities for most of the year, living the lives of migrant labourers not much changed from those endured by their forebears under apartheid. It would have enriched the film as an emotional document and strengthened its explanatory power if individual miners had more of a voice. Intimate portraits of these men would have added depth to what at times feels like a superficial treatment of the subject. More generally, the film also lacks a satisfactorily wide-ranging cast of interview subjects: there are few representatives of the government, or of Lonmin, and Desai says that no rank-and-file members of the police force agreed to speak on camera.

Yet in spite of this, Miners Shot Down is a powerful film, combining moral outrage with forceful reportage. The final scenes in particular – containing shocking video footage of miners being mowed down by alarmingly militarised police officers – are deeply troubling. The documentary also has the potential to influence the ongoing inquiry. Desai is himself optimistic in this respect. As he told Think Africa Press:

“I am hoping the commission will feel the pressure generated partly by the film to recommend the police are prosecuted. Justice cannot be served until this happens, and I will not rest until it does.’

DocHouse is screening Miners Shot Down at the Rich Mix Cinema, London on 11 September at 8.00pm. For more information about screenings and the film, click here.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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Nairobi, Kenya:

Earlier this year, scientists working at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi made a potentially momentous breakthrough in the fight against cervical cancer. In a world-first clinical trial led by the University of Manchester, researchers found that the commonly used antiretroviral drug lopinavir could kill the virus that leads to the disease.

The study examined 40 Kenyan women with the human papilloma virus (HPV) who were asked to self-apply the drug − which is usually taken orally − to the cervix twice a day for two weeks. Just three months later, cervical smears found marked improvements in over 90% of the women, with no adverse effects reported.

“For an early stage clinical trial the results have exceeded our expectations," said Ian Hampson, one of the trial's lead researchers. "We have seen women with high-grade disease revert to a normal healthy cervix within a comparatively short period of time.”

Although cervical cancer is largely well-managed in many developed countries, the disease is a growing concern across much of Africa. According the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are an estimated 530,000 new cases of the disease each year, leading to over 270,000 deaths, and around 90% of these cases occur in developing countries. Of the 20 countries with highest incidence rates worldwide, 16 are African, while the disease is six times more prevalent in Kenya than it is in Western Europe.

It is in this context that researchers hope lopinavir could prove significant. "If it can be proved it works," Hampson told Think Africa Press, "it would have major implications since it is relatively cheap − around $25 per patient as used in our study − and can be self-administered by women which means no costly surgical procedures and fewer associated complications... It is our hope that this treatment has the potential to revolutionise the management of this disease most particularly in developing nations such as Kenya."

Catching it early

Further trials need to be conducted before the treatment is rolled out more widely, but if these prove successful, there are various reasons to be hopeful. However, it is important to recognise that while lopinavir is notable for its cost and ease of use, Kenya's main problem in tackling cervical cancer has not typically been the absence of effective medical treatments. As the World Health Organisation points out, there are already "efficient, low-cost screening approaches suitable for low-resource areas and vaccines that are efficacious in preventing the infections and precancerous changes that can lead to cervical cancer."

As with many other health issues on the continent, one of the underlying reasons that the disease presents such a heavy burden in Africa comes down to other problems such as poverty. In the likes of Kenya, for instance, women often struggle to access the necessary health facilities, and many of those that do find they cannot afford treatment. Moreover, those that do seek treatment typically come up against Kenya's under-staffed and under-resourced healthcare system − facing long waits of several months to be seen − and hospitals that may lack the relevant equipment.

Another difficulty is the challenge of educating communities about the disease and the need to get regularly screened to catch the cancer as early as possible. As David Makumi, vice chair of the Kenya Cancer Association, stresses: "The challenge has been late presentation. Most early cervical cancer can be detected easily with pap smears or other cheaper screening modalities, and treated. Early cervical cancer has been treated successfully with curative intent for many years."

Indeed, while there are tried and tested treatments for the early stages of the cancer − and while lopinavir could soon be used to cure the pre-cancerous virus − these will only help if patients are regular screened, that stigma around the disease is reduced, and that people come to recognise the need to detect the disease as early as possible.

This is a lesson that Helen Masama, a 40-year-old mother of three, learnt firsthand when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer a few years ago. "When I told my children about this sickness, they broke down in tears. It was like the cancer had already killed me," she says. However, because the illness was caught early enough, it was possible to operate. "I learned how important it is to have a pap test regularly," she says. "If I hadn't had that pap test that led to my cancer diagnosis, I might not be here today. I am living proof that screening can find cervical cancer at an early stage when treatment works best."

Stop it before it happens

As well as encouraging women to get screened regularly and improving treatment for those with the disease, there is also another route to tackling cervical cancer that Kenya is currently attempting − preventing the disease before it can even develop through vaccination. "The primary prevention of HPV is through immunisation, administered to teenage girls before they become sexually active," explains Rose Ngau, a service provider at Family Health Options Kenya. "We must stop cervical cancer before it happens."

This is how many countries across the world have combated the disease and neighbouring Rwanda recently became the first low-income African country to achieve nationwide access to the vaccine.

In Kenya, however, although an internationally-supported project helped immunise 20,000 schoolgirls for free in Kitui County, the prohibitively high cost of the vaccine elsewhere has constrained its use to those who can afford private medical care. And once again, a combination of poverty, a struggling healthcare system, and insufficient awareness-raising have so far limited the effects the vaccination could have.

"Our lawmakers need to do more," says Ngau. "We need to strengthen patient advocacy in international settings to build a global grassroots movement [that portrays] accurate perceptions of cancer; to prevent stigma from inhibiting people in their cancer control efforts; to help people affected by cancer receive the support, services, and information they need, all of which will help in decreasing the global cancer burden."

As Masama, the cervical cancer survivor, is keen to emphasise, "this disease is no longer a death sentence." Medical tests and treatments exist − and if the trials of lopinavir prove successful, healthcare professionals will have yet another useful weapon in their armoury − but ultimately it is issues around accessibility, affordability and education that are now key.

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