by Yvonne Taylor
[Yvonne Taylor, who lives in Capetown, South Africa, was a long-time friend of Maya's and has authored many "Letters from South Africa" for Daykeeper. This is some background on South Africa, as well as Africa in general.—Ed.]
As 2008 draws to a close, I thought I’d write a little bit about the general scene in sub-Saharan Africa at this time.
Starting with my home town of Cape Town, we’re gearing up for the summer holiday season. Over 1 million visitors are expected, although with the current financial crisis, one wonders if this target will be reached.
Business life comes to a standstill from about the beginning of December, and for 6 weeks, nothing much can be achieved from a service delivery point of view. Building construction of the 2010 soccer stadium in Green Pt. continues until 16 December, when the whole building industry closes for a month. There have been occasional strikes by workers at the stadium, who want more pay. Meanwhile FIFA is putting heavy demands on the city relating to what they want for the soccer World Cup, and the whole 2010 project is now about R3 billion beyond budget. No surprise to the ordinary man in the street, but a great surprise to the organising committee! One wonders where this enormous amount of money will be found—not difficult to guess, ratepayers are always a soft target. The stadium itself is a hideous blot on our beautiful landscape, reminiscent of grandma’s old tin bathtub, and we’ll be saddled with this unpopular monstrosity for decades to come.
In the second week of November we had unseasonal storms along the southern coast and adjacent interior, causing billions of rands damage. Worst affected were vineyards, orchards, homes, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure—all washed away. The damage is still being fully assessed, but to date stands at several billion rand.
South Africa is also feeling the pinch in the global financial crisis, although our banking system (which is not linked to foreign systems) and tight credit laws have cushioned us to a large extent. But the economy is suffering in the way of major job losses (70,000 in the past three months), mostly in the mining, industrial and retail sectors. Our Finance Minister says we will not go into recession but economists say all the signs are there.
Whatever the case, we are not immune to what’s happening in the rest of the world. The property market is dead, car sales have collapsed, and food prices have gone through the roof. Although fuel prices have come down in the past couple of months, we’re not benefiting because of the dismal exchange rate of our currency It’s lost almost half its value in the past 4 months.
Moving northeast, we come to Swaziland, which is sinking deeper into poverty. The last genuine king reigns supreme. At the last count he had 14 wives, and an unknown tally of children. He takes 2 or 3 new wives each year; these women live in luxury in the various palaces, have expensive overseas trips and come home loaded with luxury goods, drive around in top-of-the-range cars, while the ordinary Swazi folk are starving and riddled with AIDS. The king is quite oblivious to this situation—he apparently sees it as his right to live as "supreme master."
North of our border is disaster-zone Zimbabwe, with Mugabe still calling the shots. For over 2 months “power-sharing” talks have been going on, but they continually collapse despite efforts by other parties to move things along. While Mugabe still breathes, there will never be a settlement in Zimbabwe. The latest catastrophe is the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. Within one week over 400 have died, and the disease has spread into 9 of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces. The worst part is that many hospitals are closed, doctors and other medical staff are on strike because they can’t work under the current conditions, and there are no medicines available. This has resulted in cholera patients flooding over the border into South Africa (most of them illegally) for medical attention. The situation has really become a serious threat in the past week.
Other countries to the north, such as Kenya and Uganda, continue to experience the usual problems of no food, no jobs, and rampant AIDS. Angola and Mozambique are still trying to recover from decades of civil war. Angola hasn't made much progress, Mozambique is benefiting slightly from the white farmers who fled Zimbabwe and took their expertise eastwards across the border. But poverty and poor infrastructure are still the norm in Mozambique.
When Obama won the U.S. election there was great jubilation in African countries. He is seen as someone with much power who will be more sympathetic to Africa’s problems, and it is widely hoped that America will increase its aid shipments. What many fail to realize is that a number of Africa's problems are self-inflicted, and it is felt among donor nations that Africans should do more to sort out our own problems, instead of always expecting someone else to do it.
A major trouble spot at the moment is Somalia, where pirates have taken control of the Indian Ocean by hijacking a major portion of shipping traffic. Within one week they took a massive fully-laden Saudi oil tanker (it’s the size of 2 aircraft carriers) and then 3 other large ships. They demand ransom money, and from what media reports say, are living the high life on land. Local inhabitants are thrilled with the new developments because they feel it solves their problems of no food. These pirates are extremely proficient in what they do, are heavily armed and totally fearless. They commandeer the ships in the Gulf of Aden as they head for the Suez Canal, then force them to enter one of several ports on the Somali east coast. It’s gotten so bad that most of the world’s large shipping companies have decided to re-route their ships round South Africa’s coastline—which may bring some welcome money into this country’s coffers if they need to re-fuel or stock up on supplies.
I watched a TV documentary recently about Cameroon. It told of a particular man who has 50 wives and 112 children! Each wife has at least 4 conical mud huts, each hut being used for one purpose —sleeping, cooking and 2 pantries. Multiply those 4 huts by 50 wives and one can see that this man is almost a village unto himself. The huts are linked by a maze of narrow alleys, much like a rabbit warren. This is just one man, and there are plenty more like him in Africa. Is it any wonder that Africa in general is poverty-stricken and starving?
The Democratic Republic of Congo is at war with itself once more, and the appalling conditions there are stomach-churning. After many years of civil war, peace seemed to have been reached, but now rebels have started their killing spree again. It’s a really sick scenario there at the moment. Burundi has also seen a flare-up of hostilities, after a short period of relative peace.
So at the close of this year, the African continent is anything but peaceful and relaxed.
Perhaps it’s all a sign of the times with upheavals before major changes—one certainly hopes so. Looking on the bright side, when things reach rock-bottom, the only way is up!
2009 promises to be an interesting year, full of potential either positive or negative.