Just spent a week promoting the South African edition of From Poverty to Power, published by Jacana Media with a nice foreword from Francis Wilson, an authority on poverty and labour markets in SA who also chaired the launch event at the Book Lounge in Cape Town. Jacana put on a great programme of public events, university lectures and got some good radio and TV coverage.
The highlight was probably the launch in East London, a recession hit town in the Eastern Cape whose economy depends heavily on the local Mercedez Benz factory (which like auto firms everywhere is seeing its sales slump and is laying off workers). The launch was organized by the Daily Dispatch, the East London newspaper formerly edited by Donald Woods of Cry Freedom fame, and it pulled 250-300 people into the Guild Theatre – everyone from high school classes to grizzled survivors of the armed struggle against apartheid. It felt fitting that East London should overtake the launches in Washington or London as the biggest launch event thus far – here people weren’t talking about ‘development’, but about their own lives and futures.
Conversations and questions in East London and the other launch events revealed a palpable sense of disillusion and concern over corruption among political leaders and officials, fear for the future, and heart-searching over how to change public attitudes and values. Doesn’t human nature inevitably lead to greed and unfairness? How can we ensure that an active citizenry is not promptly coopted or crushed by political parties? Do political leaders inevitably betray their followers? Is gradual change possible, or is radical upheaval the only way? Elections are due on 22 April, but I didn’t detect much excitement at the prospect.
Flying into East London brought home the grotesque inequalities that persist here – suburbs of comfortable, largely white homes with pickups and swimming pools, interspersed with the most deprived of shanty towns. It’s getting on for two decades since Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, but economic apartheid is still alive and well in the parallel universes of black and white, apart from the elevation of a small black middle class via the black empowerment affirmative action programme. It’s like one of those posh café lattes in a glass, with a layer of milk sitting atop a layer of coffee, and only the faintest of intermingling between them. That and the ubiquitous fear of crime that leaves you feeling trapped and cooped up behind a series of heavy duty security gates and ‘armed response’ signs got to me – I was relieved to board the plane to Zambia yesterday.
Most startling statistic? UNISA, an Africa-wide distance learning, Open University style institution in a monstrous Orwellian building just outside Pretoria, signed up 11,800 development studies students this year. If I could just get FP2P adopted as their course text…….