Ode on a Distant Prospect of Nkandla Political Education Centre (or Elegy Written in a Political Graveyard)

November 14, 2012

This is the house that Jake built.

These are the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

This is the gate and curtain-wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

These are the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain-wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

These are the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain-wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

These are the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

Those are the lies and cover-ups spun by the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

This is the secret funding scam, concealed by the lies and cover-ups spun by the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

This is the government plundering to sponsor the secret funding scam, concealed by the lies and cover-ups spun by the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

This is the budget for the poor, depleted by government plundering to sponsor the secret funding scam, concealed by the lies and cover-ups spun by the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

These are the voters who pay the bills, who sought  the budget for the poor, depleted by government plundering to sponsor the secret funding scam, concealed by the lies and cover-ups spun by the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

This is the President fat and smug, who fools the voters who pay the bills, who sought  the budget for the poor, depleted by government plundering to sponsor the secret funding scam, concealed by the lies and cover-ups spun by the crooks and political hacks who ride in the high-speed blue-light cars which drive on the hugely costly roads which run to the gate and curtain wall watched by the trigger-happy guards protecting the house that Jake built.

 


Where Are They?

November 14, 2012

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the American attempt to exterminate the human species by provoking a war with the Soviet Union, so what better time to wonder why we have not yet been vapourised or enslaved by aliens from another star? The Creator noticed this while glancing at one of Gardner Dozois’ excellent science fiction short story collections, Best New SF 25. There’s a whole lot of stories which, explicitly or implicitly, are about interstellar war (though admittedly several others are about war within the human community). Stephen Baxter’s “The Invasion of Venus” and Robert Reed’s “The Ants of Flanders” are both about aliens invading the solar system to prosecute a galactic war without actually paying any serious attention to the existence of the human race, who are too small and feeble to offer even modest assistance. Ken MacLeod’s “The Vorkuta Event” is about aliens entering the solar system to recruit human intelligences so as to prosecute a galactic war. This is politically interesting, because these stories have similar themes to William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth”, and all these trace their ancestry back to H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The point about Wells’ novel was that this war wasn’t a war at all; the invading Martians were so technologically superior to the humans that they could do what they wanted with the human species; Wells explicitly compares the human race with rabbits who find their burrows being dug up by humans wanting to build a housing estate; the rabbits don’t know what’s going on, they can’t stop it, and incidentally, they are delicious in stews. It seems possible, however, that Wells’ real thought was about colonialism, and the way in which European fighting machines moved into technically backward parts of the world, mowed people down and enslaved the locals. Tenn was quite explicit, again, that he was re-imagining the destruction vested upon the suffering people of Korea by the Cold War (between two and three million people were killed in that war, and about 90% of those being Koreans being killed by foreigners — mostly in the carpet-bombing of the North by the Americans after the front stabilised). Tenn scaled up the war a thousandfold and located it as an alien conflict fought on the Earth, which exterminated the bulk of humanity and made the survivors vulnerable to attack by giant carnivorous rabbits, taking their revenge on the heirs of Wells. The present war stories seem aimed at the American prosecution of what used to be called the Global War on Terror, which has so far lasted eleven years, and their habit of destroying cities from the skies without anybody discussing matters with the locals. (Usually the Americans ask permission from helpful locals who have gone into exile long ago and are usually, conveniently, already working for American intelligence agencies.) It’s not about the locals, the Americans say, it’s about something else; freedom, justice, democracy, homeland security, what you will, so long as the profits for the arms companies roll in. Baxter, probably the most right-wing of the writers in the book and a kind of less intellectual, less poetic descendant of Robert Heinlein, doesn’t make the comparison clear, but even here it’s obvious that aliens are vast and cool and unsympathetic — at least towards us — and we have no idea what they are doing, so we’d better not bug them. Technology will not save us any more than will censoring the media or rounding up dissidents. So this is quite a positive development. Instead of fantasising about blowing other people up, as President Obama seemingly does when he wakes up in the morning (one shudders to think what his wet dreams might consist of) these writers are fantasising about being blown up by others who are not people, and they don’t relish the prospect. That’s sensible. But why has this not yet actually happened? Let’s now set up a little thought experiment. Suppose a technologically advanced civilisation exists, such as ours. We know — and at the moment it seems quite likely — that such a civilisation could destroy itself with the power technology gives it, either by war or by accidental by-products of bad but profitable policies. Nevertheless, let’s assume that such a civilisation will endure, since it seems quite likely that with sensible management, this is possible. In which case, such a civilisation will have no difficulty in, over a few hundred years, expanding to all the planets in its solar system. Then it becomes natural to ask why not expand to other solar systems, and since natural selection seems to encourage such behaviour, logical to do so. Send off a ship to the nearest star! Can this be done? It doesn’t seem absurd that one could accelerate a ship to one percent of the speed of light — three thousand kilometres a second. At such a speed, it takes about five hundred years to reach the nearest star. We can easily imagine how carefully-preserved cells could be kept for five hundred years (some cell lines are already many decades old in our laboratories) and the technology of cloning is already fairly advanced, so even if more exotic technologies such as suspended animation or the storing of personalities in computers do not turn up, it doesn’t seem impossible that the human germ plasm could be transported to the nearest star, where artificially intelligent machines could raise the clones while constructing a technological society capable of keeping them alive after they reached adulthood. Therefore, after five hundred years, humans could be inhabiting another solar system — whether on the planets thereof, or in space stations constructed from orbiting detritus, is relatively unimportant. If we assume that such a mission is launched only once a decade, it would take a trillion years for humanity to send a spaceship to every star in the galaxy. However, almost certainly after five hundred years or so, each of these colonies would be in a position to start sending missions of their own. In other words, after a thousand years from the launch of each ship, the process of colonies performing further colonisation could begin. At this point, it becomes an exponential process; in the first thousand years, the first civilisation launches only a hundred missions, but then within a few centuries the missions start launching their own missions, and suddenly there are ten civilised solar systems launching colony ships, and then a hundred, and then a thousand. Within thirty or forty thousand years of this growth, enough probes have been launched to colonise every star in the galaxy. Forty thousand years is too little time to colonise the galaxy at one percent of the speed of light; it takes you only 400 light-years, a sphere within which there are perhaps a million stars. A thousand times as many starships could have been built to colonise or communicate between these stars. It seems obvious, then, that space could be quite crowded. This process would then go on more or less at the speed of colonisation, one percept of the speed of light, spreading out across the galaxy to the furthest edges one hundred thousand light-years away, which would be reached after ten million years. (After so much time we would, no doubt, be a quite different species, unless we chose to stay as we are, but there is no reason to assume that the human race would not be able to recognise its children; we humans today can recognise the apelike ancestors of ten million years back.) Very well or ill. What would a colonised galaxy look like? Assuming that it uses technology no more advanced than our present one, it would be a galaxy humming with energies, shooting radio messages from star to star, restructuring its solar systems to suit the needs of the locals and so forth. We would be able to detect the radio messages and their regularity, even if we couldn’t decode them. We should probably be able to detect some of the terraforming activities around local stars — especially if the locals decided to surround their star with a sphere of solar panels to curb and control all that exciting energy it was pumping out. It might be, of course, that our understanding of the galaxy is so limited that we have persuaded ourselves that it is a natural phenomenon when it is really a carefully-tended garden. If the galaxy is someone’s garden, we have never seen a galactic wilderness, so we have nothing to compare it with. It might also be that the thousands of years which it would take to colonise the stars would bring technologies which we cannot today imagine, like inhabitants of Ur of the Chaldees trying to account for satellites as funny stars which whiz overhead every ninety minutes instead of twenty-four hours. Maybe it is not necessary to change anything in a way detectable by us in order to make solar systems habitable. Maybe the aliens learn how to soak up sunlight in vacuum and float around the stars independently in an ecstasy of contemplation. Maybe they lock themselves inside tiny machines, or step off into alternative dimensions of space. In which case, maybe our solar system has already been colonised; we might be surrounded by aliens watching us, not from comforting spinning silver discs, but from little corners of the space we inhabit, or inside our own minds. Maybe we are ourselves alien colonists without even realising it — is it necessary to instruct the troops what the whole war is about, as long as they know how to hold the bridgehead and construct roads? Yes — war. After all, colonisation is a war against the inanimate; about turning that which isn’t alive into that which is alive. (Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories just stands this on its head, imagining robots programmed to improve living matter by removing life from it and turning it back into healthy, positive inanimate matter.) In that case, if colonists collide — as they must if there are thousands of species all expanding at one percent of the speed of light — there would be conflict over those inanimate resources, philosophical disagreements, and warfare. We should be able to detect the aftermaths of that warfare from here, even if only through neutrino pulses from big thermonuclear weapons. There’s no sign of that — certainly, no such war is being fought, or has been lately fought, in our solar system. Where are they? It seems funny that we can’t detect them. Either the future will turn us into a species which doesn’t colonise other stars (perhaps by discontinuing us before we get the chance) or it will turn us into a species which colonises other stars in ways which we, at present, cannot recognise as such, and is, perhaps, pacifist, or at least not warlike in a massively destructive way. Shock, horror, the future may turn us into something unrecognisable as human. That’s promising; maybe we will end up as a less environmentally damaging race than we currently are. Unless, of course, we are the first ones here. In which case, a few millennia may put us in a position to do serious damage to the Galaxy. We will have to wait and see.


Marikana Follies.

November 14, 2012

It is extremely difficult to discuss the Marikana massacre. The emotional resonance of the killing of thirty-four striking mineworkers by heavily-armed police officers in the context of South Africa’s history is too powerful; it obscures the judgement. But we should try. What factors led up to the Marikana massacre? There seem to be two parallel, separate, but possibly connected fields for study: the police themselves, and the evolution of the strike itself. Were the police ordered to carry out the killing by higher authority? If so, how high did the authority go, and why were the police willing and above to carry out such a killing when it is supposed to be against their ethos and training? If not, what led them to carry out the killing? Both possibilities point towards the police being badly trained and badly led and with a poor understanding of their duties, which were all enabling factors in the massacre. It is advisable to investigate these things, while simultaneously investigating whether the poor quality of the police force was the whole source of the massacre, or whether it was an enabling factor in the abuse of the police force either by the force’s local leadership, national leadership, or some political or economic entity which had power over the police force. To answer the latter question one would have to ask who profited from the massacre. So it would be natural to ask how the strike arose and therefore, who was most menaced by the strike. What exactly is AMCU? Why did AMCU discover such fertile ground for undermining NUM at Marikana? What led AMCU to advise workers to make such extreme demands? Why did the strike become so violent so quickly, with at least ten people killed in a few days? Why was the mining company so outwardly passive in the course of the strike? And also, incidentally, why were these questions not asked at the time by any observing commentators or officials of any of the entities involved? What was the relationship of the mining company with AMCU and the NUM? With the police? With the government? Where was the government while all this was happening? These are difficult questions to ask, but they could be investigated. Unfortunately, it seems likely that they are not going to be investigated. The format of the Commission of Inquiry is, essentially, one of inviting representatives of different parties to tell their stories. So far we have had the police and AMCU participating, and the results are not exactly encouraging. The police line is that they were obliged by circumstances to use what they call “excessive force”. It does not seem to have occurred to the police that this is a contradictory line. Excessive force, by definition, is too much force. The official police doctrine is supposed to be the application of the minimum level of force consistent with attaining desirable objectives in the circumstances. Excessive force would then be any level of force above that. Therefore the police could not have been obliged to use excessive force; what they were obliged to use was a level of force appropriate to conditions, and excessive force is necessarily greater than that level of force. Perhaps this is just a rhetorical point. What the police seem to be saying is that they could not have used less force than the force which they used, that circumstances made them fire rifles loaded with ball cartridge into a crowd predominantly armed with clubs and choppers. “Excessive force” in this case means “more force than the force we would have wanted to use, but unfortunately could not”. That clears matters up, except for the absence of the customary police policy of using stun grenades or shotgun-launched rubber bullets (or indeed teargas or birdshot, equipment rarely used nowadays but still on the potential menu). It seems that they did not try to disperse the crowd with these methods, and so far nobody has asked why not — perhaps because focussing on the massacre itself, rather than on what could have been used to avoid the massacre, is much more politically advantageous. This is becoming rather obvious when one looks at Dali Mpofu’s lawyerly performance on behalf of AMCU. His line is that the police action was part of a vast conspiracy. Well, that’s quite possible — there are so many vast conspiracies in South Africa, these days, that in tripping over one vast conspiracy you are extremely likely to tumble into the very heart of another one. However, in order to sustain this, it would be worthwhile to point out what the conspiracy consists of. Mpofu’s line was to release a bunch of e-mails from various management figures at Lonmin, e-mails which were demanding that the government do something about the violence which accompanied the Marikana strike. We don’t know whether these e-mails were sincerely sent, or whether they were sent so that Lonmin officials would be able to say afterwards that they had asked the government to do something. After all, Lonmin is hardly a weak organisation and could certainly have done a lot more to curb the violence had they wished to do so; that is what mine security officers are for. What matters is that under the circumstances, there was nothing unusual about them; they were the electronic equivalent of strolling down to the police station and asking the man at the charge-office why the hell they don’t put someone out watching that dangerous corner of the park where people are getting mugged. However, Mpofu not only denied this obvious point, he focussed his attention on an e-mail which contained a message from Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa is at least nominally a shareholder in Lonmin (he supposedly has about 9% of the shares, although it’s likely that he simply administers these on behalf of his principal, Anglo American) and therefore would be expected to side with management. Indeed, in the e-mail he was calling for the government to do something about the violence which accompanies the Marikana strike. Mpofu declared that this proved that Ramaphosa was responsible for the Marikana massacre. Why was Mpofu doing this? Nothing Ramaphosa said had not been said by the actual management of Lonmin. Nothing indicated that Ramaphosa had any special influence with the government’s response to the Marikana crisis — he is not a particularly significant player in the government at the moment, although he might become so given that various factions in the run-up to the Mangaung conference are putting him forward as a compromise candidate, much as Sexwale was put forward in the run-up to Polokwane. Most particularly, nothing Ramaphosa said called on the government to massacre mineworkers on the slopes of Wonderkoppie. So, what’s going on here? The obvious object is to distract attention away from the actions of the mine bosses and onto the shoulders of Ramaphosa, who is identified as an ANC polician much more than as a mine boss in the eyes of the general public. By pretending that this is a sinister ANC conspiracy, Mpofu is able to protect his real principals, who are almost certainly mine bosses. Just as Ramaphosa has protected the mine bosses by serving as a black ANC front so that blacks (and the ANC) can be blamed for the obscene disparities of wealth in the country, so he can now serve as a black ANC front so that blacks (and the ANC) can be blamed for police brutality and capitalist collusion in the violent oppression of the workers. This is pretty much in line with the Trotskyist approach, which is to blame capitalism, the NUM and the ANC so as to avoid blaming capitalists. Another interesting possibility, however, is that Mpofu is aware of the smear campaign against Ramaphosa being waged in the run-up to Mangaung. The cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro has been attacking Ramaphosa — obviously the section of the ruling class served by Shapiro wants to undermine him. He has been attacked particularly in the Mail and Guardian (though its business section has defended him, using the hagiography Ramaphosa commissioned for himself) and defended in the Sunday Times (owned by the company which employs Ramaphosa). It’s entirely possible that Mpofu was acting as an agent of this campaign. What’s much more certain is that the real interests of Mpofu’s supposed customers, the suffering workers of Marikana, are not being served, and nor, for that matter, is the cause of truth, whatever that might mean in Zuma’s South Africa. It is, incidentally, extremely likely that the Marikana massacre was pre-planned, though the most likely planners were the South African Police Service generals. The paramilitary forces which were deployed at Marikana were comically unsuited to the job of riot prevention, but they make up a big part of the police budget, and to sustain that budget in a time of financial cutbacks, it made sense to deploy them. Having deployed ill-trained trigger-happy gunmen to a crisis zone, matters might have been expected to take their course — but also, the fact that two police officers were murdered by the Marikana miners was, very probably, a factor. Wherever it happens that a police service is very poorly managed, it tends to devolve into a kind of official street-gang, and the business of street-gangs is to teach people respect for them. You don’t show respect for the dudes wearing the colours, you got to expect comebacks — in the form of 5,56mm bullets. Much of the evidence led by the SAPS — video footage which appears to contradict the footage shot on the same scene by journalists, or video footage which provides no useful information at all even though the officer taking the video was trained to collect evidence, together with forensic evidence which contradicts other evidence and sometimes contradicts itself, led by an officer with no knowledge of forensic procedures — suggests an agency in complete chaos. This is an organisation which could not arrange an effectual cover-up. Most likely, the leaders who arrange circumstances so that there could be a massacre, or even gave verbal permission for the massacre to take place, were not thinking about consequences or how they might someday be asked to please explain their actions — but they have had two months to cook up a good story, and instead they are falling over themselves to accidentally implicate each other. But then, this could also be said of Lonmin, and the Zuma administration, and AMCU, and the NUM, and the miners and their legal representatives. Marikana exposes what a rotten society, root and branch, we live in today. Unfortunately, exposure is not the same as the cure.