Speaking to South Africa

Last Thursday (7th March), I had the fortune to be involved in a video conference with a South African school, organised for our Advanced Higher History class – in which we study South African history.  The class was comprised of 17 and 18 years olds of around the same level of education as us.  I think they’re from a predominantly Coloured school, somewhere along the Cape Peninsula.

The reason I’m writing about this is because it was truly a thought-provoking experience.  Although some of their comments were drowned out by the passions of their teachers, the students had such an engagement with their history and were keen to hear our views on certain situations.  They were far more talkative than us typically shy Scots, who shuffled awkwardly and never knew what to say.  I found their views fascinating.  There was a lot of bitterness in their comments, as the Coloured community were excluded from the Apartheid regime but are not entirely at home in today’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ either.

The comment which really stayed in my head, however, was made when I asked the class what they believe individuals in foreign countries could do to help situations like Apartheid today – Syria, for instance, which was mentioned frequently.  They were all agreed that political lobbying through letter writing, petitions, etc. were important, as well as raising awareness and donating some of our collective wealth to charities dedicating to helping.  They believed that a general antipathy exists in ‘better off’ nations, where human nature dictates that people are unlikely to go out of their way to change an issue which does not directly affect them.  These comments really resonated with me.  I toyed with the idea of starting up a human rights group in our school – an Amnesty International branch, perhaps – although two months before exams and leaving school maybe is slightly bad timing.  And I’m not optimistic of the level of support it would enjoy, although that’s no reason not to try.

I discovered a deep love for talking to people of different cultures, beliefs and backgrounds – of hearing their views and ideas.  It put me into a bit of a high for the rest of the day, and I was eager to experience more.  Along with a desire to do more to help disadvantaged parts of the world, I think the longest-lasting lesson, for me, from the conference is a reinvigorated desire to become a journalist.  

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My Varied Week

Warning: this post goes into detail about the ups and downs of my past week.  May involve mild feelings.  If you’re of the irritating belief that we should all be living ice people with stiff lips then you may find this vaguely offensive, though there’s nothing too obscene.

One word: Prelims.  If you know what this means I expect you to be recoiling in horror right now and if you don’t, well, you are envied by many.  Basically, preliminary examinations which act as a kind of practice run before the final exams.  They do count for getting into courses which start before you get results for the final exams, and can also be used in appeals, but I’m in the fortunate position of relying on neither since I already have the grades I need.

So, why was it so Hellish?  Simply, all four of my exams were scheduled between four days of one another.  I am, of course, grateful that I have the opportunity to sit any exams – but did it have to be so stressful?  I’ve spent most of the last month either doing research for my history dissertation (“How great an effect did the pressures of foreign countries have on Apartheid policies between 1960 and 1984?”) and NABs (other horrific ‘unit passes’, which you need to pass in order to sit the final exam).  So basically, I had no time to revise for the exams.

Then I caught a cold.  And snow swept across the island.  It’s as if the world has been conspiring to make me perform as badly as possible in the Prelims!  It’s fair to say this past week wasn’t an enjoyable experience – particularly the three hour Advanced Higher history exam… I still shudder at the thought.  But, somehow, I managed to get to all four of my exams and actually seemed to do alright.  Not had any of the results yet – not that they’re very important at this stage – but I performed as well as I could have hoped.

The most varied day of all was Wednesday, the Hellish history exam.  I genuinely felt in a state of mild shock afterwards, consumed by numbness, unable to get my head out of Apartheid South Africa (not the nicest of places).  A couple of people described me as ‘shell-shocked’, amusingly.  I guess the length of the exam, the longest I’ve ever sat, took it out of me.  I hear exams at university typically last three hours… *another shudder*.  Interestingly, St. Andrews chose that day to let me know they’d offered me an unconditional place to study English.

I HAVE A PLACE AT ST. ANDREWS!!  How did that happen?  That’s so amazing!  I’m so lucky!

And I’m probably going to turn it down.  Hah.  I’m not sure yet, and wouldn’t like to say anything for sure.  I guess, having grown up on a remote island, I’d prefer to live somewhere well connected like a city.  And St. Andrews, for all its prestige, has a very negative reputation of royalty and privilege – neither of which I’m a great fan of!  I’ll have to visit, of course.  It’s exciting to tell people I’ve been offered a place, anyway.  Someone told me I would be ‘mad’ to turn it down.  Am I?

So yeah, that was my dramatic week.  How was yours?

Israel’s Obsession with Walls

Israel appears to be developing an obsession with walls and barricades that would have made the Romans proud.*  First came the infamous West Bank barrier, which upon completion will cover around 700km, clearly separating the territory of Israel and the West Bank.  The Gaza Strip is separated similarly.  The stated purpose of this was to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, and in that respect is appears to have been a success.  But underneath this reasoning there may be a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy declined between 2000 and 2002 as work on the barrier began, and has only made a feebly recovery.  Communities have been cut in half.  They have lost their human right to the freedom of movement.  This isn’t even getting into Israel’s highly criticised settlement policy.

The city of Jerusalem is increasingly becoming cut in half, between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem.  Both Palestine and Israel consider Jerusalem their capital city – and of course, neither respect the right of the other to exist.  Israel, having won the most wars and gaining the most foreign military aid, now appears to exist more so than Palestine.  But that’s a different subject/rant altogether.  Jerusalem is bearing more and more resemblances to  Cold War Berlin, separated by the Berlin Wall.  We can only hope this wall will be brought down as peacefully.

Then I read the news article which inspired this post, commenting on the Israel-Egypt barrier being built along the border at Sinai.  And then, just as I was planning this post in my head, I read this news story of yet another barrier being planned, this time along the eastern border of the Golan Heights as a result of the Syrian Civil War.

The Golan Heights were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and have remained in their possession ever since.   As the Syrian Civil War becomes ever more violent and bloody it has begun spilling into other countries – this can be seen in both Lebanon and Turkey.  Israel has remained neutral during the war – again a whole other subject – and does not want to be affected by the instability.  So up goes another wall.  Once more this barrier protects Israel from terrorism, this time the terrorists being radical Islamist insurgents who have gained influence in the Sinai region since the Egyptian Revolution.  However it was also intended to cut off the flow of African migrants into Israel, and in that respect it will certainly be successful once reaching completion early this year.  It is also hoped to crack down on illegal drug trafficking.

While there may be some legitimate reasons for all this obsessive building of walls, the fact is that it does nothing for Israel’s image of being an imperialist occupier, and the idea that a Second Apartheid is developing between the Jews and Arabs of the region.  In fact, a quick search with the words ‘barrier’ and ‘wall’ brings up results for every single one of Israel’s neighbours, though not all of these are quite so dramatic in scale.  Virtually, there are walls over every single one of Israel’s borders.  Extreme paranoia, an abuse of human rights or necessary defence?  I could not say.

*Well, okay, the Romans would have resented any attempt of wall-building by Israel, but that’s besides the point…

ANC Party Congress

The ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress, is holding a party congress in Manguang, where the party was formed nearly a century ago to oppose segregationist policies introduced by the Union Government.  The ANC would go on to oppose the infamous policy of Apartheid, and rose to power in post-Apartheid South Africa, maintaining political dominance ever since 1994.

In this Congress, the ANC’s leader shall be chosen.  Despite criticisms of being lax on corruption and incompetence, current President Jacob Zuma appears the favourite to win the leadership.  However he is facing a tough challenge from his Vice President, Kgalema Motlanthe, who was the interim President of South Africa from 2008-2009 after the resignation of President Mbeki.  Motlanthe could be putting his career on the line by challenging Zuma, but strong competition is a vital element in democracies and so is an encouraging sign for South Africa’s struggling development and progression from Apartheid.

Of course, competition from a variety of parties is also essential for a democracy, yet, barring any extraordinary events, whoever wins this leadership election will undoubtedly go on to become President in the 2014 General Election.  This is not as of yet down to any dictatorial attempts by the ANC to stay in power, but the fear is that the longer the ANC rules South Africa the further entrenched its power will become, until South Africa and the ANC become inseparable  much like South Africa and the National Party were between 1948 and 1994.

Although the Congress will most likely re-elect Zuma as leader of the ANC, it will be an interesting insight nonetheless on the direction South Africa is heading.  I personally, without knowing a great deal about either man, think Motlanthe appears to be the better to lead the party.