Month: August 2014

Aristide: Wrong hemisphere, wrong time

Aristide; wrong hemisphere, wrong time.

Glenn Ashton

May 2004

(Note: I repost this older article in light of the comment made by Bill Clinton that they had screwed up in Haiti and that he regretted his role in US intervention in this nation).

Jean Bertrand Aristide was, in 1990, the hope of Haiti, a shining light emerging from the clergy to usher that benighted nation from its US supported Duvalier nightmare into a new democratic future. There was however one problem; he was a socialist, a man of the people, an egalitarian leader.

Haiti is separated from Cuba by only a narrow channel. Like Cuba until the 1950s, it has long been reliant on its economic ties to the USA, both from funds repatriated by Haitians living in the US and as a source of cheap labour for sweatshops and plantations. In 1990 it appeared to the US to be headed in the same direction as Cuba.

US Navy vessels entered Haitian waters 24 times between 1849 and 1913, to “protect American lives and property”, according to Noam Chomsky. Thus was Haitian sovereignty ignored under the Munroe doctrine. This doctrine was adopted by US President Munroe in 1823, when the that regional giant began to flex its regional muscle, declaring the ‘Western Hemisphere’ out of bounds to European intervention. This early phase of US unilateralism in the region led to the famous ‘Banana Republics’ of Central America, ruled by appointees of the US-owned that supported their interests, primarily the Standard Fruit and United Fruit Companies. The Monroe doctrine was the start of the US marking the greater Caribbean basin as ‘American turf’.

Aristide’s emphasis on social rights immediately put him on the wrong side of Washington. Just as popular movements were crushed in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – the old Banana republics – in the 1980s (mainly by paramilitary hit squads trained at the infamous US run “School of the Americas” in Panama which has relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia and remains active today), so too was Aristide a marked man from day one.

Aristide got 67% of the vote; his US backed, ex-World Bank official Mark Bazin received only 14% of the vote. Aristide came to power in February 1991 and was deposed seven months later, in a US backed coup.

Aristide’s brief rule began to move toward participative, bottom up democratic government, according to Noam Chomsky. However his populism so threatened US interests that he was deposed. After his ouster, an all-out campaign was engaged by both the Haitian army and hired thugs to stamp out the nascent civil society activity. Deeply involved were two individuals who were directly connected to the CIA, Raul Cedras and Emmanuel Constant, of whom more later.

Thousands were killed and the Organisation of American States (OAS) declared sanctions against the illegal rule in Haiti. The US promptly declared its 800 companies involved in Haiti exempt from such sanctions. The next few years saw a period of repression as bad as than that of the Duvalier thugocracy, when their dreaded Tonton Macoutes were allowed free rein in a reign of terror. From 1991 until 1994 it was US inspired, if not supported, proxy forces that engaged in crushing this new social movement. An estimated four to five thousand people were killed in this oppression led by Cedras, Constant and others with direct links to US agencies.

Aristide remained in exile during this time. He was returned to power after extensive international pressure forced US intervention to allow the duly elected head of a democratic state to fulfil his mandate. Additionally, the ongoing international and domestic outcry about the Haitian boat people, literally dying to escape the horror of Haiti, helped tip the scale.

With irony piled upon irony, Aristide was returned to his leadership of Haiti by the same US forces that similtaneously gave amnesty to Constant and many of his thugs. The US also removed extensive documentation from the Haitian armed forces and security services to the US mainland. Both the Bush I and Clinton presidencies refused to part with these documents until names of US citizens were removed. Nobody has even bothered to ask Bush II.

Aristide was forced to accept a wealthy scion as Prime Minister in 1994 and was instructed to institute neo-liberal structural reforms as set out by the US and international financial institutions. This was also, true to pattern, supported by the wealthy classes in Haiti, the traders, plantation owners and assembly line operators, in order to promote a more ‘investor friendly’ climate, supported amongst others by US Aid.

Aristide was thus politically compromised. His constituency wanted fair reward for their labour while his US aligned opponents reverted to their old tactics of political disruption by thugs. Aristide’s supporters countered this and the chaotic stalemate hampered any significant progress along the lines that Aristide and his supporters sought.

Aristide nevertheless tried to continue to put his vision of democracy in place and managed to hold elections in 2000 that were largely fair and free and in which he was again elected by a comfortable majority. The opposition largely boycotted this election over a dispute about the positions of some of their senatorial candidates, in what was essentially a distraction that enabled his opponents to call foul about the elections.

Against this background of instability and external interference, the ante was upped by the return of Emannuel Constant’s men to the border regions of the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s poverty-stricken eastern neighbour. The insurrection picked up momentum. The entire nation slid towards chaos, that was clearly not of Aristide’s making but was driven by external forces aligned to US interests.

In amongst all of this chaos came the celebration of Haiti’s 200 years of independence at the beginning of 2004. This event puts it amongst the oldest independent – nominally, at least – democratic nations. President Mbeki, in an act of solidarity, supported this important event on behalf of the African Diaspora. We must not forget that Haitians overthrew the European plantation owners in a struggle for freedom that began at the end of the 18th century and which continues to this day. The implications of the Haitian example for Africa are profound. It can be strongly argued that our President was correct to both support the Haitian bicentennial celebrations and to invite Aristide to South Africa in his time of need.

After (and apparently during) the South African visit, public order deteriorated rapidly and the US-inspired ‘intervention’, widely regarded as a coup, led to Aristide finding himself on an aircraft to Africa, in an ironic reverse of the slave route that brought his ancestors to the West Indies.

Aristide was not the awful leader that he has been made out to be. He was hardly in any position to run a model democracy but given the blighted history of Haiti his rule was benign. He built more schools in his country during the few years of his rule than had been built in the previous history of Haiti. He allowed unionisation and worker rights. He put a cost-effective public administration in place but vested local and external interests actively undermined his grassroots version of democracy.

The saga of the little priest, Bertrand Artistide is one that has strong resonance with our own liberation movement. It echoes our hopelessness in the time of Apartheid. But Aristide’s real problem is that Haiti is simply situated in the wrong hemisphere to install a people-centred government. The proximity of Haiti in relation to Cuba, the US and Venezuela emphasises its geopolitical strategic value. When Bush II was installed, right wing Haitian expatriates and businessmen gained the ear of the administration and effectively sealed Aristide’s fate.

Had Aristide been the leader of an African nation he would have been hailed as a visionary leader, as someone committed to the rights of the people, a considered man who would have been supported by the First World. He was after all a community priest, someone who lived amongst his people and knew them and what they wanted. He was the reluctant leader of a popular experiment in participative democracy, something that we should all celebrate. Instead he was portrayed as a revolutionary working against the interests of the regional superpower and was mercilessly crushed, crushing the democracy he sought with him. He was the right man, doing the right thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The present dynamic in Haiti points to a hopeful outcome. Brazil and other regional nations are involved in restoring stability under UN mandate. South Africa too has a role to play by assisting this elected head of state to return to his nation when peace and order have been restored.

It is just and correct that a nation with the moral reputation of South Africa welcome President Bertrand Aristide of Haiti with dignity and hospitality. It is also high time that those who question our largesse properly examine the real history of the corruption of Haiti.

Glenn Ashton lived in the Caribbean Basin for three years during the 80s and 90s, observing the influences and results of post-colonialism and neo-colonialism in the region.

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What it means to be human

what it means to be human

glenn ashton

am not only
because we are

i you we all are
solidified in bones
cosmic echoes circulate through blood
genetically coded from protozoan
echoing across millennia
manifest as human
star powered people

held by gaia
protected from malevolent radiation and rocks
by a fragile magnetosphere atmosphere stratosphere
forcing me to ponder
why am I here
surrounded by beauty
seen but exploited

magic disguised as deities
tamed by superstition then logic
deconstructed to atomic scale
and beyond
minutiae measured and formulated
but inadequately contextualised
purified by love
but impure

watchmaker clockmaker matchmaker
singing songs of spheres
in baffling diversity
intrinsically linked
to protoplasm plankton
fungible fungi
breathing life
into soil plants fish
transmogrified from dinosaurs into apes

apes clever enough
to wittingly destroy
not only the earth songs magic
beyond measure
but unwittingly poison the symphony of systems that sing
songs whispering unheard secrets
down through the ages of time

we come and go and come and go
susuruss silently slipping
which dims
into the pinging pinpoint
of consciousness beyond comprehension

i me you we all
shall pass and return

in time the sun will burst
red giant washing away earth gaia terra
as easily as we blow dandelion fluff
back to the love of ages
breathing out again into the cosmos
our ancient home
stellar travellers
dust to dust
never alone

The Tragedy of Equatorial Guinea – political slave to the resource curse

Note- this is an article I wrote ten years ago, back in June 2004. Since then the situation has deteriorated in this country with the Nguema family still firmly in control, politically and economically. It is not only the timber that is being stripped but the vast resources of oil being sold to western, mainly US, companies, without the slightest complaint about the political status quo; in fact the leadership attended the recent Africa US summit in Washington. It was originally published as a leader in the Cape Times.

Reposted 7 August 2014.


Follow the Money; Equatorial Guinea

by Glenn Ashton

27 June 2004

A decade ago, few people had even heard of Equatorial Guinea, let alone knew where it was. Guinea, Guinea-Bissau yes, perhaps; but Equatorial Guinea? That was, until the late 1990s, when large oil deposits were discovered off its coast and it was catapulted from its position as a sleepy, poorly run African backwater into the third biggest oil producer in Africa.


South Africans gained closer familiarity with Equatorial Guinea when a group of South African mercenaries were arrested in Harare, allegedly en route from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea to stage a coup on behalf of forces unknown, but said to come from opponents to the Nguema family. Obiang Nguema has run this impoverished country with an iron fist since the 1970s. He came to power by deposing his despised Uncle Francisco Macias.


Political accountability and democratic governance remains a distant dream for this blighted nation which could politely be referred to as a plutocracy but what could more plainly be called a kleptocracy. This kleptocracy is noteworthy given the beneficiaries of the oil boom and timber extraction, certainly not the populace of that nation. There have been elections, but there have also been hangings of opposition members, as well as allegations of torture and the extra-judicial killing of opponents. Over one third of the population of Equatorial Guinea lives in exile, with deep-seated opposition to the Nguema dynasty widespread both within and outside the country.


Recently the South African connection deepened when the son of Obiang Nguema, Teodoro (aka Teodorin) Nguema Obiang, bought two very pricey properties in Cape Town, one each in Clifton and Bishopscourt, at a combined price of over R50 million. Teodorin Nguema, besides being the son of the president, is also the minister of Forestry for Equatorial Guinea.


Most would consider this an unimportant post until one considers the importance of forestry to Equatorial Guinea. This tiny nation, nestled between Cameroon and Gabon on the Gulf of Guinea, is mostly swathed by lush tropical forest. Make that ‘was’.


Equatorial Guinea is comprised of a total area of around 28, 000 square kilometres, smaller than Lesotho but larger than Swaziland. Of this area, 22, 000 square kilometres of Equatorial Guinea was forested up to a decade ago. Of this, a total 15, 000 square kilometres has been allocated to industrial logging.


Wood is an increasingly valuable global commodity. Sustainable timber extraction is estimated at approximately 400, 000 cubic meters of timber annually. This level was reached in 1996, and in 1997 an estimated 757,173 cubic metres of timber was exported. Presently an estimated 1 million cubic meters of timber are being removed from these forests annually. The entire ecological balance of the region is being irretrievably damaged by this exploitation and EU and US based watchdog organisations have raised concerns at the highest levels about the present state of affairs. And Teodorin is the man in direct charge of this overexploitation of his nations’ resources.


Eighty to ninety percent of the total population of about half a million Equatorial Guineans rely on the forest for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and for other necessities of life. While there are laws that are supposed to protect the forests and limit overexploitation, these are reportedly widely ignored. Timber companies have failed to support even token projects that favour the forest dwellers. Encroachment on traditional lands is further increasing the pressures on rotations amongst small-scale farms in the remaining patches of forest, causing further overexploitation and unsustainable use.


Organisations like the World Rainforest Movement report that the forest resources are being depleted for the benefit of Trans-national corporations while local residents are deprived of their means to livelihood.


As in other places where logging has been allowed, it is not only the forest that suffers, it is the entire ecosystem. The bushmeat trade increases as access into pristine areas is enabled by logging roads moving ever further into the rainforests. Possibilities for exposure to haemorrhagic fevers, unknown viruses and other diseases are proven to increase when logging opens up wilderness areas. Guidelines on keeping slopes free from logging are evidently being ignored and experts warn that this overexploitation is an environmental disaster in the making, with ecological collapse as its inevitable result.


Teordorin is reputed to have close ties to Shimmer International, a subsidiary of the Malaysian Trans-national logging company Rimbunan Hijau. The World Rainforest Movement quotes Richard Wilcox’s study “Asian Economies Fuel Forest Meltdown”, saying that “Rimbunan Hijau has become one of the most ruthless logging companies in the world”, due to abuses of national laws and regulations, human rights violations and contractual breaches. Several other equally disreputable corporations are also involved in this pillage of the resource.


If only a fraction of this story were true, it would be incumbent upon the South African government to investigate this matter. What sort of people do we allow to purchase property here? Surely it is unacceptable to allow such questionably sourced funds to move freely into a legitimate marketplace? Is Financial Intelligence Act (FICA) not designed for precisely such extra-legal practices? Does SA, as a driver of NEPAD, not have an obligation to act in this case and more importantly, to be seen to act to promote democratic governance in Equatorial Guinea? A reasonable person would surely argue that there is little difference between controlling the illicit funds of drug barons and those in places of power who exploit and abuse agreed international standards for environmental governance for self-enrichment and who have acted against their national interest.


The amount of over R50 million appears to have a high likelihood of being tainted by environmental and human rights abuses. An important part of the tropical rainforest in Central Africa is rapidly being depleted to fund the undemocratic leadership of what is claimed to be one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa.


Just as FICA should be applied in this case, so too the principles of good governance as espoused by NEPAD should also be brought to bear in the form of African diplomatic pressure and sanction. Equatorial Guinea has recently gained the resources that should allow its people to be lifted from poverty en masse. To allow the wealth of a nation with a sixth of the population of Cape Town to be squandered on vulgar, opulent mansions, amongst the most expensive in Africa, appears bereft of any moral or ethical principle. Such a situation should not be countenanced by nations like South Africa that purport to promote good governance.


What is presently happening in Equatorial Guinea will inevitably have disastrous long-term effects on that nation. Just as its oil has been found to be monopolised by its tiny elite, so too is its timber. Are South Africans prepared to allow the reputation of their nation to be degraded by offering haven to such people? By all appearances Teodorin stands as an antithesis to the very tenets of freedom and democracy, so hard fought for and held so dear by South Africans. Can South Africans be seen to sell their soul for silver tainted by mud and blood? What sort of message does this send to the world?


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Time to revise our overuse of antibiotics

Antibiotic End Game: Some Implicationss

By Glenn Ashton · 26 May 2014

Antibiotic resistant bacteria have brought humanity to the dawn of a new era of medical uncertainty and risk. This has emerged through a simple evolutionary trend, where some of the most basic organisms on earth have managed to thwart our ingenuity over the course of slightly more than half a century.

Recent medical and scientific progress has extended human longevity well beyond the traditional biblical time-span of 70 years, across many parts of the world. One of the most important medical interventions of the last 70 years was the widespread availability of antibiotics to cure previously untreatable infections.

At the end of the Second World War there were less than 2.5 billion people. Today the earth is home to over seven billion. Besides improved nutrition and vaccines, a significant proportion of this growth can be attributed directly to antibiotics. Yet these wonder drugs are increasingly being outsmarted by the simple bacteria they initially vanquished. How has this happened?

Bacteria multiply incredibly fast; one of the most common antibiotic resistant microbes Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as staph, divides every half hour. In five hours, a single bacterium can formed a colony of over 1000; five hours later it will be over a million strong.

Evolution is driven by genetic mutation; this is how organisms adapt to their environment. Given the size of staph’s genetic code, we can expect about 300 mutations in the first ten hours. In less than a day and a half the genome theoretically has the potential to exhibit every single possible mutation in that new colony.

This is the consequence of the exponential power of rapid cell division and mutation. The result is the inevitable adaptation of bacteria to environmental pressures, which in the health field include antibiotics. We use antibiotics to extinguish dangerous bacteria that have infected our bodies. But once bacteria have adapted, the antibiotic becomes ineffective.

This basic explanation illustrates our vulnerability to these rapidly adapting organisms. More specifically it highlights how vulnerable we are to the over-use and abuse of these medicines that revolutionised health care over the past three human generations.

It is not a matter of if we are going to lose our existing antibiotics, it is when. Our careless misuse of these medicines illustrates our inability to deal with the perilousness of our situation. We are so blasé we casually feed them, at sub-therapeutic levels, to livestock in order to accelerate growth. The result is a slew of resistant bacteria emerging from these livestock production facilities, directly into the animal products we consume.

Antibiotics are also excessively prescribed. This is encouraged by the conservative medical approach of doctors, dogged by litigation, who wish to reduce risks wherever possible. Improper use, such as not completing a full course, further encourages resistance.

This has led to elevated infection rates through even relatively minor medical procedures. High human and animal population densities harbour and incubate increased bacterial loads. Today, as in the time of our grandparents, we are under a real threat of serious infection through something as innocuous as a scraped knee or an infected insect bite.

Antibiotics have saved my own life several times. A septic foot as a child, a particularly nasty tropical infection as an adult, a bad tooth abscess and an agonising gut infection were all treated by antibiotics. The same goes for most of us. Statistically, antibiotics are prescribed more than once a year to every resident in some parts of the USA.

What happened before we had antibiotics? Nearly one in three cases of pneumonia were fatal. One of nine skin infections. Half a percent of mothers giving birth. I would probably not be here to write this article.

How bad are things presently? Let’s examine our example of staph infections: In 1974 2% of US infections were methicillin resistant. By 1995 it was 22% and by 2004 it had reached 64%. By 2007 more people in the US were dying from staph infection than from AIDS. Combine HIV, AIDS, TB and resistant staph and other bacteria and you have a ticking time bomb. This is of particular interest to Sub-Saharan Africa, along with other developing regions.

HIV and AIDS compromise our immune systems. Antibiotics therefore effectively become a substitute defence mechanism. As this region lies at the global epicentre of the pandemic it is clearly essential not to compromise the utility of antibiotics.

The same goes for what is known as drug-resistant and multiple drug-resistant (MDR) TB. This emerged mainly through patients failing to complete the full course of antibiotics. This caused the tubercular bacillus to rapidly evolve resistance to almost every known antibiotic. Today MDR TB can only be treated in isolation, along with the monitored dosing of patients by astronomically expensive medications.

Health experts and the medical fraternity are profoundly concerned by the rapid evolution of antibiotic resistance. Steps have been taken to address the problem, yet our present antibiotic arsenal has limited and shrinking possibilities.

The reality is that we have to explore new alternatives. The pharmaceutical industry is reluctant to do so because of the expense and increasingly short-term usefulness of new antibiotics; bacterial resistance has evolved more and more rapidly to the most recent antibiotics. If drugs are not sufficiently profitable, big pharma is indifferent to developing them. Consequently a strong argument has been made for state intervention in the research for new antibiotics.

Promising new antibiotic resources have been isolated in soil meta-genomes. Some of these are associated with the rich biota of the Fynbos region of Southern Africa, along with other mega-biodiverse regions. Other useful discoveries have been made through analysing various marine organisms.

Such opportunities need urgent funding for research. It would be useful, in the case for South Africa, for the generous existing government subsidies to biotech research to focus carefully on research toward development of new antibiotics. These could be rolled out by leveraging similar finance streams as used with new HIV and AIDS drugs, which access both public and private funding and keep eventual costs low.

We urgently need to see this situation for what it is – an emerging global crisis with potentially catastrophic possibilities for humanity. There are solutions but we must explore novel, practical methods to deliver them into the public health system. This challenge demands our immediate attention.

This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service –
Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.
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Revitalising Agriculture: Healing the Land, Feeding our Nation

Revitalising Agriculture: Healing the Land, Feeding our Nation

By Glenn Ashton · 30 Jun 2014

South Africa is a harsh country, a place of extremes. Producing sufficient food for our people has always been a difficult challenge.The new Minister of Agriculture, who can only be an improvement on the previous incumbent, is an interesting choice.

Senzeni Zokwana is the national chairperson of the South African Communist Party, as well as having headed up the National Union of Mineworkers. He has no background in agriculture, in common with his deputy, ex-Police commissioner Bheki Cele. He appears to be a capable and popular leader. Hopefully he will be able to focus clearly on addressing the serious shortcomings within the agricultural sector which remains essentially unchanged since 1994.
We are faced with two competing pressures in agriculture. On the one hand we continue to rely on an intensive, industrial farming model to produce most of our staple crops, dominated by maize. These crops are largely grown by white farmers who still control the majority of arable land. This model has serious impacts on both the land and our water resources.

Industrial farming is intrinsically linked to the dominant economic model: maximise profit while externalising impacts and costs. Instead of driving reform, this model has served to further concentrate land ownership amongst fewer owners while simultaneously failing to address the chronic levels of food insecurity. Jobs have declined and tenure has been eroded.

On the other hand there is increasing political pressure to reform the agricultural sector as a whole, while also redistributing and reforming land holdings. Agricultural sustainability and diversity are part of this reformation process.

It is the unenviable task of the government to manage this delicate balancing act and address these often competing requirements. Many feel that Minster Zokwana has been handed a poisoned chalice.

The departure of Minister Joemat-Pettersen is welcome given her inability to grasp the nettle of agricultural reform. Rather than dealing with core issues she fiddled with patronage based small-scale farming initiatives, which have yet to realise any significant or sustainable material gains toward food production, employment or land reform. The last five years have essentially been wasted.

While Zokwana has no agricultural background, his socialist roots may incline him toward addressing the gaping inequalities in our agricultural system, both in terms of access to sufficient land and in terms of allocating sufficient resources to produce food and livelihoods from that land. There is an innate irony that his present office can directly assist his retrenched colleagues from the mining industry, most of whom hail from rural, agrarian roots. However, translating his ideology into action is another matter.

The directorate of the Department of Agriculture was substantially restructured under the watch of the previous minister. It is top-heavy with administrators involved in pastiched programmatic structures while critical human resources like extension officers, who provide real, practical assistance to farmers, are by the department’s own admission, thin on the ground.

The Department’s Directorate of National Extension Services has a director of extension reform but no director of extension support. In other words the fundamental interface between the department and farmers is presently rudderless and poorly staffed, despite the department recognising that extension services are seriously compromised.

More worryingly, the department has considered reforming extension services along public private partnership lines. This would be a major retrograde step. This is one reason why the present minister has inherited a poisoned chalice – ideology and patronage have trumped sound policy formulation.

President Zuma’s recent State of the Nation Address explicitly recognised the importance of agriculture to the nation, both from the perspective of employment creation as well as from its essential role in providing food security.

Yet, since coming into office, his new government has been unable to make any sense of the competing agendas behind agricultural reform and production. Recent proposals to allocate shareholding to farmworkers appear to be little more than a side-show, which may incidentally compromise the investment climate.

More seriously, these kinds of proposals are incapable of tackling, let alone resolving the underlying land reform and restitution tensions. The spectre of food insecurity looms over vast swathes of the nation. This is exacerbated by the lack of a cogent national food security policy, either rural, or increasingly importantly, urban.

The neo-liberal policy paradigms inherent in GEAR, IPAP, ASGISA and the rest of the well-intentioned but acronym filled WEF-friendly jargon have stymied both land and agricultural reform over the first two decades of our democratic dispensation. Our economic obsession with remaining “investor friendly” has seen agricultural policy fixated on a large-scale, industrial farming model, which includes genetically modified crops and energy and chemical intensive inputs. All those have done is maintain the status quo.

On the other hand smallholder and subsistence farmers remain largely neglected or patronised. If and when assistance has been given, it has been fixated on misplaced attempts to leapfrog farmers into the industrial model, usually without suitable support. When inevitable failures occur, everyone except policymakers are blamed.

The government has recently become more sensitised to the critical role that small scale farmers play in ensuring food security, especially given our relationship with BRICS partners, who generally nurture their small farmer sector far more holistically.

Recent Brazilian research emphasises this reality: four out of five farms there are small, largely family run enterprises. They provide nearly 40% of total agricultural production, including most food consumed in both rural and urban areas. This all comes from less than one quarter of the total cultivated area. Similar patterns exist in India and China, which also have focused on linking small scale farmers to markets, as well as on the feminisation of agricultural production.

In 2003, the African Union resolved that governments should direct 10% of budget toward agriculture. South Africa still lags far behind the rest of the continent, disbursing less than one percent of the budget toward improving agricultural production. Our policy remains controlled by males, while women are central to smallholder production.

Where smallholder farmers have been assisted, insufficient marketing assistance has been given. If marketing assistance has been provided, for instance when government institutions purchase outputs, payment is often delayed.

Minister Zokwana has the unenviable task of fitting this jigsaw together. As a primary industry agriculture is indirectly responsible for around a quarter of GDP, through food production and downstream processing. All of the parts of this puzzle – land reform, smallholder farming, food security and production – need to be holistically re-evaluated.

The minister is fortunate that extensive research has been undertaken in this field by various focus groups over the past few decades. The Programme for Land and Agrarian Reform (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, the African Centre for the Cities at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute are just a few institutions which have re-examined the agricultural paradigm.

Agricultural policies and actions over the past 20 years have failed to fundamentally reform the sector. We are in an almost identical situation regarding food security and land tenure as we were in 1994.

Radical intervention holds both high risks and opportunities. We need two things: a national summit of agricultural reform, and coming out of this, a White Paper on how we are to meet these competing requirements while improving access to land and food for our people. It is time for the minister to cast aside the poisoned chalice and start anew, rather than continue to perpetuate the mistakes of the distant and recent past.


This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service –

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

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Time to change how economics is taught.

A Demand from Students around the World: Change Economics Education Now!

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Jun 2014

A remarkable thing is happening in the world of economics. Dissatisfied students from various institutions around the world insist that the dominant economics curriculum must change, as it inadequately reflects, or deals with, our current economic realities. They clearly realise that real change occurs from within.

These students demand changes that not only reflect our post-2008 economic crash world, but further insist that the entire theoretical economics framework and curriculum be fundamentally revised. A deep distrust of the dominant neo-classical economic model has emerged. This has spurred these young economists in training to ask how the subject can become relevant for all, not just the few.

Mainstream economic theory has been under increased scrutiny for quite some time. Alternative economic concepts have been reinforced through the work of more socially oriented economists like Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen, Elinor Ostrum, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. These, amongst others, have led to a marked shift away from the strict current emphasis on neo-classical economics as taught amongst most major educational institutions, towards a more pluralistic perspective.

The New Economics Foundation was founded in the United Kingdom in 1986. It trenchantly criticised the illegitimacy of the dominant economic hegemony. It predicted the inevitable consequences of pursuing neo-classical economics, particularly highlighting its inability to adequately address social inequality and environmental consequences.

Even distinctly counter-cultural economic movements like the Degrowth movement have gained broader consideration. This has accelerated since 2008, when governments indulged in large-scale bailouts of ostensibly free market institutions with tax-payers money.

In 2010 George Soros, the philanthropist entrepreneur who spectacularly demonstrated his grasp of practical economics by gaming the international financial system, founded the Institute for New Economic Thinking. This has served to reinvigorate the debate about broadening economic perspectives, even though it too has come under criticism for its constrained perspective.

The first rumblings of unhappiness around the economics curricula emerged from the US, where a small number of students walked out of a Harvard economics class in 2011 in solidarity with the global “Occupy” protests against growing inequality. This brief dissent failed to translate into substantial changes.

However, in the UK students at the Universities of Glasgow and Manchester formed organisations to directly address concerns with their economics syllabus in 2012. The Glasgow Real World Economics Society and the University of Manchester Post Crash Economics Society were soon joined by students from other august UK institutions, like Oxbridge and the London School of Economics. These, along with dozens of other members have created a formal global alliance known as the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics.

This initiative has managed to penetrate beyond its old world base, notably into Latin America and the Indian subcontinent, along with Australia, Russia and the USA. It has yet to be seen how influential the movement becomes but some progress has emerged in curriculum reform in the UK in particular, despite predictable resistance from mainstream economic thinkers against what is seen as an upstart student-led organisation.

Surprisingly the trend has yet to emerge in Africa, even as economic inequality continues to rack the continent. The only hint at change, The Young Economists for Africa, appears to have been stillborn, becoming moribund soon after its launch in 2012. This is unfortunate, especially given the continental impacts of structural adjustment, coupled to ever-accelerating neo-colonialism.

But exactly what are these students asking for?

Their primary objections revolve around the fundamental reliance on neo-classical economics. This focuses on early economic foundations which solidified in the early 20th century, based largely upon Adam Smith’s 18th century magnum opus, “The Wealth of Nations.” It emphasises the ascendance of a rational market, driven by competition. Our present economic malaise is blamed on this model, propelled by sentiments like “greed is good,” driven by a reductionist, Newtonian perspective.

Yet 17 years before the “Wealth of Nations,” Smith penned a lesser-known treatise, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Instead of emphasising competition and rationality, his theory favoured co-operation rather than competition, reciprocity and fairness instead of the “rational” pursuit of value.

The initiative for economic pluralism insists we should, amongst other things, consider these critical aspects of economics. The University of Manchester Post Crash Institute points out that even mainstream economists like John Maynard Keynes remain marginalised in current university teaching, let alone Marx or Sen, Ostrum and their fellow post-Keynesians.

They insist, in what essentially serves as their manifesto, that higher economics teaching requires urgent reform in order to become relevant. More importantly a good education must produce graduates fit to operate in a far more nuanced and complex world, than one based upon the theory they are currently taught.

They insist that students must be given opportunities to analyse and compare these emerging economic theories. Such comparative analytical opportunities would equip them to discern differences between what constitutes good and bad economic theory and practice.

This leads in turn to the trend amongst higher educational institutions to encourage interdisciplinary research. Universities increasingly encourage broader experiential learning through incorporating inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary opportunities into their curricula. Economics is by its very nature transdisciplinary, including, inter alia, aspects of sociology, mathematics, science and psychology.

Yet perhaps the very nature of economics (is it a science, art or social study, for instance?), its newness, along with the marked tensions between factions, perhaps all combine to create a degree of internal rigidity and uncertainty? Does this not encourage an internalised rather than outward looking perspective, and the consequent suspicion of multidisciplinarity?

Economics currently attracts students inspired by the questions asked by Occupy protestors, by those espousing degrowth, new economics or even the popularity of “Freakonomics.” They are increasingly savvy as to the underlying nuances of economic thought and while academic rigour is essential, diversity is equally important.

Any education must be integrated in order to equip graduates to participate in the real world. Any academic institution does itself a disservice by diluting its relevance through defensiveness, rather than exposition and interrogation of what actually makes the world of economics real.

If students are to be equipped beyond the cliché of “the dismal science” – and current, mainstream economic theory remains dismally incapable of meeting our needs – then they must receive the most complete training possible. If graduates are to effect change they must be able to deal with, and hopefully solve the dire social and environmental challenges we collectively face. They certainly cannot, and will not, remain confined within stagnant academic backwaters.


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Bread and Circuses – how we are distracted from reality by modern media

Bread and Circuses: How dystopian fantasy distracts us from our dystopian reality.

By Glenn Ashton

16 July 2014

Two millennia ago the Roman commentator Juvenal wrote of “panem et circensis,” bread and circuses, to demonstrate how the masses had abandoned political responsibility in exchange for full bellies and extreme entertainment. In Juvenal’s times entertainment was of the gladiatorial variety.
Today the violence of gladiators has been replaced by sports heroes and teams where rules constrain the violence, or by cinema and television featuring violence as gratuitous as the Coliseum, watched while we munch junk food, distracted from our dystopian reality.
We live in a time of peril. The danger is not so much the shadowy extremists portrayed mass media or Hollywood movie themes as it is a function our economic system which drives human and environmental exploitation, creating inequality, pollution and climate change. Those capable of realising change apparently choose distraction rather than action.
Suzanne Collins denies she wrote “The Hunger Games” series as a protest against our dystopian world. Yet our reality eerily echoes her fictional nation Panem (yes, bread!), where the one percenters in the capitol monopolise global resources while keeping the colonial serfs in line through military power and violent entertainment. However Collins does admit to drawing inspiration from the way in which war and so-called reality TV has become a seamless continuum.
Humans are good at self-distraction. Historically we blamed our ills on malicious deities or fate. Before we adopted the trappings of so-called western civilisation and monotheistic religions, we danced sacred dances or performed ritual ceremonies to celebrate or assuage the wrath of the gods. We discovered, and continue to use drugs and alcohol to enhance or blunt our perception.
Our modern world demands our constant attention. We are immersed in a web of instant messaging, email and social networks, effectively a seamless media feed. We are simultaneously informed and misinformed. The lines between reality and fantasy, real war and computer simulation are increasingly blurred. We are intentionally distracted from the shadows flitting across the walls of reality, while big brother peers over our shoulders.
This distraction is necessary to divert our attention from the great lie of the impossible premise of endless growth in a world of limited resources, of dwindling forests, grasslands and marine resources. Plastics and pollution clog planetary arteries; toxins saturate land and water; fossil fuel emissions pollute our atmosphere. This all adds up to what is termed a polycrisis. Some recognise the threat, but most appear to prefer to remain distracted as the easier option.
The varieties of distraction are instructive. They are not exemplified as much by the candy coated rom-coms about vacuous idols living the American dream as by disaster movies, where everything is to blame for human troubles except (occasionally) for anything similar to the actual threats we face.
The updated version of “Godzilla” provides a useful example as to the variety of available distraction. We have the frantic hero yelling about this lizard/dinosaur sending everyone back to the stone age, itself an ironic nod to US general Le May’s threat to bomb Vietnam back to the stone age.
In “Transformers – Age of Extinction,” cities are threatened by absurd robot aliens rather than the realities of fragile food and water supply chains. Then there is the “Edge of Tomorrow,” where the diminutive hero repeatedly gets to blow up illusionary threats from the future, instead of dealing with the causes. Pompeii does show natural disaster, but with nature as deity, as in Vulcan.
And these are just the latest big budget distractions from the real and present danger we face. It is not lizards we should fear but far more tangible threats like economic and ecological collapse.
The OECD recently warned of diminished growth and ecological risk as we hit the limits to growth toward mid-century. Just as we are co-responsible for wantonly destroying global ecosystems in the pursuit of profit, we are equally complicit in failing to act against increasing inequality that Thomas Piketty shows to threaten social stability. The reality is that we have devised inadequate responses to our polycrisis.
It would be trite to claim that relevant social commentary is absent from entertainment media. The point is we remain as prone to the allure of bread and circuses, of sports extravaganzas, junk movies and food, as were the citizens of ancient Rome while the elite compromised the empire. We all know what happened to Rome.
It is painful to face up to failure, particularly when surrounded by the evidence of dysfunction. The alcoholic, the sociopath and the drug addict are the last to seek help, usually after alienating those who mean the most to them. So too with plutocracy and empire. Can we continue to allow ourselves to be co-opted by those distracting us with their bread and circuses?
In 2011 the celebrity philosopher Slavoj Zisek asked the Occupy Wall Street protestors, “We know what we do not want, but what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want? Remember: The problem is not corruption or greed; the problem is the system which pushes you to be corrupt.”
We know our system is rotten and failing us in almost every possible way. It is ecologically and economically fragile. Yet what we spend on war could bring peace to the world many times over, shift us from unsustainable resource exploitation toward ecosystem restoration and provide real growth for all. Contradictorily, those who seek change, in any form – environmental, social or economic – are portrayed as the enemy.
If we are to change the system we need to look beyond the circuses of the big and little screens and the junk dished up as bread, which stunts us intellectually, spiritually and literally. As analyst Nassim Taleb loves to remind us, “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud.”
Mary Pipher’s recent book “The Green Boat” elegantly showed how engaged and linked communities, from local, to regional, to national level can indeed begin to change the system. Meaningful change requires overt rejection of contemporary bread and circuses. If not, we will be complicit with the fraud perpetrated upon us.

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