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Claire And Her Chair



There is not much to do in the quiet village of Simon’s Town, Cape Town, best known as where South Africa’s naval fleet lies. It is the sort of home where you go fishing, walking on the beach, or else watching the penguins waddle onshore. It’s the sort of place where a news headline is a handful of break-ins over Christmas.

That’s just the way journalist Claire Robertson, 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award author of The Spiral House and The Magistrate of Gower, likes it.

“It feels like you are hiding away from life here, but then you write a book and you get dragged back into life,” she says.

“It shocked me rigid with all the attention… I thought I am not selling my writing to anyone anymore. I am writing for myself. I started doing that in my journalism, instead of writing the news story.

“A news story is Nelson Mandela made his long-awaited return to Robben Island yesterday, this time surrounded by a company of international news media. The real story is we trailed him around the island, and when we got to the quarry that had damaged his eyesight, where he worked for so many years breaking stones and the reporters yelled out ‘dance for us’. You saw him sigh and sink slightly and then he started his shuffle into this expected shosholoza dance. That is actually what happened. When you get old enough you start writing it.”

Claire and her chair

Meeting Robertson at her home, on the slopes of Jackson Road, is a real treat. We sit under the shade of a grape vine with sunbirds flitting through the leaves to the sounds of dustbin men at work.

For the 54-year-old, standing at the edge of the gentle lapping shoreline of Waters Edge Beach, a few hundred meters downhill from here, was the defining moment that led her to abandon the stressful urban streets of Melville, Johannesburg, five years ago.

“[Melville] was getting tough to go walk around at any time of the day or night, which is what I like to do. It was getting less and less safe. You know that feeling when your freedom is being curtailed in South Africa. Certainly everyone has a bloody minded moment and you can’t bear being hemmed in. I thought I wanted to find a place that I can walk at any time of the day, and it was here.”

The quiet life here is a world away from the height of Robertson’s career as a hard news political journalist in the 1980s.

“To be a reporter during the height of the dying days of apartheid in South Africa was the greatest privilege in my personal profession. There was nothing like it. Every story mattered,” she says.

Some stories where harder to write than others, one of them being the reclassification of races which under The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act, had denied families living together.

“Already as a young person you are trembling at the injustices of the world. Meanwhile you are working in a society where this is just being thrown at you all the time. Following that through to watching a country talk about how it is going to shape itself,” she says.

“Then you are reporting something like the Dutch Reformed Church not allowing black people to join in a service. They would open the [priest’s] garage for the services and shove the old tyres aside as a Christian duty.”

Other stories send a chill down Robertson’s spine on this hot Simon’s Town morning.

“I remember meeting with the commandant in the Pretoria Central prison and hearing this unearthly singing. And he said ‘oh, that it was condemned men singing on the night before they are due to be hanged’. I remember shaking.”

Robertson lived the reshaping of South Africa; she cradled her firstborn daughter the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison; she also covered the negotiations at Kempton Park which led to South Africa’s Constitution.

These days, it’s the calm of Simon’s Town. Robertson, the novelist, has just come back from a walk on the beach with her Scottish terrier, Henry, and a family breakfast. Her mind is more focused on her third book. The Magistrate of Gower (2015) – a prisoner of war in the South African War, disgraced in an illicit affair, who is now forced to confront his past as a magistrate 30 years later – is sold out and is now in its second edition.

“It’s about the rise of nationalism and what is the response when you see it rearing its head again. It’s very seductive. It takes the good that people have, in this instance the noble suffering during the Boer War and heroes of the Great Trek, it takes part of that and twists it into something else, which is what happened in Afrikaner Nationalism.”

It is rare to find an award-winning author who doesn’t punt their novel with pride. But Robertson’s pride is a small wooden chair in her lounge, finished by her own hand.

“It’’s quite comfortable actually and it’s made from some very cheap wood. I wanted to test out the design before I made one from oak. I am quite happy to say that no one has broken it yet either.”

She points to a wall of saws and power tools, glinting in the skylight, where the chair, two book shelves and a wardrobe were crafted by her from lumps of wood; a hobby she picked up at her parents’ knee.

Included in this home of self-made furniture is a portable writing board; filled with scribbles and doodles, one reading ‘push towards the problem’, and a sticker of a porcupine.

“It’s something prickly, that’s low slung who is just determinately going about on his way.”

Only a journalist would feel the need to say they write their stories longhand, like it’s a bad habit picked up after years of writing shorthand.

“I get lovely notebooks and sit down and write it in longhand. If you start by typing it out you are going to keep correcting yourself, you lose all your momentum and you have no record of your ideas. Things have to be aesthetically pleasing.”

“What I do is start with an idea. With The Spiral House, what was it like on a South Africa slave plantation when these two ideas of science and enlightenment are clashing. It was told through a French naturalist in my head, but what it became was a young female freed slave, whose voice spoke out.”

Robertson has always gone for the road less traveled. She was one of the first South Africans to go to Soviet Russia on a South African passport in 1988. The trip came after one of Robertson’s stories published in The Washington Post. She asked American teenagers what they thought Russia looked like, and Russian teens, in Moscow, what they thought America looked like. The newspaper liked the story so much they nominated it for a Pulitzer.

“You could see the world was changing. You could see that the ANC was starting to talk to people in South Africa. We thought lets just try it.”

“One thing that stuck, was in Leningrad, on one of the big roads, there was a department store. There in this glass case, enfolded in red satin, was a single disposible razor. It loooked like it had been carved out of a lump of Bakelite.

”it shocked me rigid with all the attention… I thought I am not selling my writing to anyone anymore. I am writing for myself”

“They could build space rockets, and amazing awful armaments, but they could not bring a milk Glut and the cereal Glut to the market at the same time. Everything was just screwed up. It was that kind of economy. People wanted consumerist stuff so badly they would spend a fortune on American jeans and sneakers.”

Her journey through the Siberian tundra also foreshadowed where she would end up.

“I found recently an old diary from the late 80s. I said what do I want to do? I want to live by the sea, sub-edit and then write. I had completely forgotten about that. Having got down, unpacked my books to discover I wrote this blissful thing. Clearly I was working this through my system.”

Working on her first novel, through the night at her brother’s home overlooking the sea in Kalk Bay was also an existential moment.

“I remember the book going so well and being so wrapped up in the book. It was suddenly four in the morning. I was working furiously away at my laptop and I heard this guguguggugug, it was the fishing boats heading out before dawn. When you have made a big change in life, and things are uncertain, and you don’t know how things go, it feels like you are getting some form of confirmation. If you are working and the fishermen are working.”

It has been a long journey to a favorite chair in Simon’s Town, from the raging streets of Africa, to walking with Mandela, to a razor in Leningrad.


Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?




How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?

As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.

Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.

Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.

What is climate change?

First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.

The causes of climate change can be any combination of:

  • Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
  • Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
  • Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).

What changes have been detected?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.

The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.

A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.

Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.

This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.

Weather attribution

Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.

The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.

One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.

As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.

Adapting to a changing climate

Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.

Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation



Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.

As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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Current Affairs

Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work




When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.

University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.

Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.

This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.

Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.

I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.

I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.

In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.

Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.

To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.

But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.

The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.

Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.

University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.

It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.

The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.

Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.

University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.

Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.

When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.

Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State

The Conversation

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