PNG memoir by Trish Nicholson tells tales of the unexpected
Conflict resolution in PNG: A friend to all and an enemy to none

South Africa: In a land of hope, dashed expectations erode the joy

A marine pilot being transferred to a cruise ship by helicopter off DurbanKEITH JACKSON

AS I write these notes, Nautica is edging its way a mile or so off the hilly South African coast between Durban and Port Elizabeth.

The sea is officially described as ‘very rough’, and the swell soars along at more than 20 feet.

The constant pitching and periodic sudden shudders have been enough to subdue most passengers. But at seven o’clock in the morning, with the sun still quite low, the scene is one of spectacular beauty.

We motor along under an almost cloudless sky, close enough to shore to observe the continuous string of towns and villages in a landscape that is green and treeless. Regular bursts of spray arc away from the ship’s bow, each shower offering a transient rainbow.

Makes it bloody hard to type, though; fingers bouncing off keys.

Coming into Durban's narrow channel two days ago, in seas almost as hostile as those this morning, the pilot was helicoptered to the ship and rappelled to the upper deck in a remarkable act of flying and seamanship.

Durban, one of Africa’s busiest seaports and the capital of Natal state, is a hollowed out city. Whites and wealthy Africans live in verdant suburbs on the periphere of the main town and they shop in malls as glistening as any you will find in Dubai or Sydney.

However, in the old commercial centre near the port where I walked for a couple of hours yesterday, an infusion of steroids returning some capability to my back, once resplendent buildings – public offices, hotels, museums, department stores – are in an advanced state of decrepitude comparable to my own.

Many of these buildings, like the town centre itself, have been hollowed out, their former fine trappings gone.

That said, the footpaths teem with noise and colour - small street stalls, girls wanting to braid your hair, sellers of lottery tickets, touts for the honking mini-buses and thousands of people who seem happy enough with the Africanisation of this part of town.

Durban+xenophobia+April+14+2015This impression may be superficial, though. It wasn’t so happy in April, when the city centre was locked down as police battled to contain a mob attacking foreign-owned businesses in the street where we walked yesterday.

Ethiopian shopkeepers said they were terrified and begged for help as their shops were stoned, death threats made and tyres set alight.

Dennis Bloem of the People’s Party said that “if looting and xenophobic violence are not nipped in the bud all of South Africa will suffer.

"Violence and looting are becoming deeply embedded amongst many people who feel economically excluded,” he said. “Today‚ it is the foreign-owned shops. Tomorrow it will be shops and businesses owned by fellow South Africans.

“Our institutions of state and all private sector role players must act collectively and urgently to deal with the problems manifesting themselves in our townships."

Expectations that were so high when Nelson Mandela led his country to freedom have been dashed by the twin realities of governance failures and corruption.

Now where have I heard this story before?

Meanwhile, outside the cabin window, the sea in beginning to subside, the hills are still green and the sky clear and blue. A string quartet plays Bach on the ship’s PA. The ache in my back has eased. In my floating bubble, all is content.


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Chris Overland

Reading this piece, I reflected once again on one of history's great truths, which is that when a society is subjected to serious and disruptive socio-economic pressures, there is a great tendency for its inhabitants to blame "the others" for causing it.

Just who the others are is dictated by circumstances. People of the Jewish faith have frequently and unjustly found themselves cast in this role, as have the Chinese.

In post colonial Africa, it is sometimes convenient to blame the former colonial power. Thus Robert Mugabe continues to insist that Zimbabwe's woes are the product of a sinister British plot rather than his and his cronies egregious failings.

Now, unless good management and a degree of luck intervene, South Africa may head down the same path.

If it does so, it will squander the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly one of the wisest, most perceptive and humane national leaders of the 20th century.

One of Mandela's great insights was to understand that the over 5 million white Afrikaners living in his country had to be encouraged to remain in the post Apartheid era.

Without their knowledge and expertise, the country's economy was destined to collapse, just as Zimbabwe's had under Mugabe's less insightful guidance.

There was and is no "white tribe" like the Afrikaners in PNG. For good or for ill, most of the expatriate Australian population simply went home in the years immediately following independence.

Now, "the others" who replaced them, are becoming a focus of discontent, as the recent riots in Lae have demonstrated.

Simply expelling these people will, of course, not help PNG or its people.

As in the case of South Africa, what it required is better governance and management of the economy to ensure more equitable socio-economic outcomes.

As Keith's article suggests, whether South Africa or PNG can produce the political leadership required to achieve this is very much an open question.

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