Looking for answers that pop through the boundaries of thought

A few thought-provoking ideas, reflections and entertainments from the deep south of Cape Town...

Some serious, some frivolous, some perhaps just ranting - see what you think!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Keeping the Horn in Place

South Africa’s rhinos are in big trouble. Our local attention focuses, naturally enough, on catching and hopefully re-educating the local poachers who are abandoning any remnants of traditional respect for our big game (if there’s any left after centuries of being dislocated from their lands).

But the bigger problem, obviously, is the entirely modern creation of a market for rhino horn. One idea currently being punted is to create a legal mechanism for this market to exist, which ignores the fact that the existence of this market is a deeply sad phenomenon in the first place. Although there’s no evidence of its general prescription as an aphrodisiac (that’s a western media myth), perhaps there’s still something about its prestigious uprightness that has fuelled the idea of its (entirely spurious) medicinal properties. It kind of goes parallel with the fervour for shark fin soup in the same region, which is decimating shark numbers worldwide. Shark fin soup is no ancient delicacy: it’s a modern phenomenon, costing ridiculous 5-figure sums for a bowl, with no nutritional benefits whatsoever, but with the prestige knowledge that you’re eating a hard pointy thing that’s been cut in manly fashion from a dangerous predator, or so the story no doubt goes somewhere in the psyche. It’s worth noting that before this latest craze, the biggest market for rhino horn was the Yemen, where men found them a virile material for making dagger handles.

There is something horribly materialistic about this quest for exotic medicine, stuff that isn’t available to just anybody, stuff that shows you’re really making it in life. It’s obvious and tragic with rhino horns, because there’s a “superfood” that research shows really isn’t one. Luckily, the reverse tends to be true in the West – plants like chia seeds have been rescued from extinction by their new-found superfood status, helped by some much-punted scientific research that supports their food value. But both the spurious superfood rhino horns and the genuine superfoods like maca roots (which really are supposed to improve male libido) are the subject of crazes to find a new health fix.

One exasperated doctor friend told me that he wishes his lovely conscious New Age friends would consider some of the more obvious and better-researched pills out there rather than trying out the latest fad. Why is this? Are we just too burnt and bruised by the pharmaceutical industry’s punting of pills with lots of side-effects, covering up the more holistic causes of problems, so that we don’t trust them to sell us anything any more? Are we fed up with doctors who claim to have all the knowledge, and we want our health back in our hands (like we want to control everything else we can about our own lives)? Are we just too autonomous these days? And so, when we’re given a chance at fixing ourselves that doesn’t involve relying on the official experts, will the inner rebel in all of us take it before double-checking?

I think not. We’ll never be truly autonomous. Rhino horn, spurious medicine as it may appear to those who’ve been lucky enough to read the right documents, is still doled out by Experts. Traditional medicine doctors, trusted by their people, added to which come today’s marketing experts (illegal though they may be in the horn trade) and the push for a sale from the business people (black market or legit) behind them. Plus it no doubt works for some, since 30% of all cures are attributable to the placebo effect, i.e. pure belief in some external cure, coupled with the body’s innate healing ability.

Rhino horn use is perhaps just one example of people desperately wanting to find some stability in our chaotic personal lives without having to really feel into the consequences of their actions on the natural world we claim to be custodians of. It’s just one step away from the billions of us who eat battery-farmed chickens or feedlot cattle or, as we have recently “unexpectedly discovered”, donkeys. And at the root is, I would argue, a spiritual hunger which many misguidedly assume can be materially satisfied with such tonics. A hunger for connection that can only truly be satisfied if we recognise the connections that are there already, face up to the consequences of our individual actions on the world around us – and recognise our power to get informed and choose positive or negative connections with our world.

I don’t have a solution to the rhino tragedy, except for a strong feeling that legitimizing the trade is not it. But I do know that spreading the word, helping Asian consumers to avoid buying it, and educating Africans about how desperate the situation is, is part of the waking up we can take on around the rhino – and that this applies to many other areas of consumer choice, from Indonesian vegetable/palm oil to West African child labour chocolate. There is no longer any time to turn a blind eye to our supermarket trolley contents.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Down and Out! Out! Out! - Farewell Mrs T

Maggie Maggie Maggie… you know the rest, if you’re of a certain age and a Pom. “Consensus politics” was replaced by her own destructive brand of ideological convictions, which, in my youth, spread despair and hatred around Britain. For once, the hard right didn’t pose much of a threat to democracy: the government itself was right-wing enough to soak up that kind of thing. It was a different era; and my own white-haired forthright grandmother was deeply impressed by the Iron Lady that I and my friends hated. Here in South Africa, the wickedness of the government could continue to be bankrolled by British industry, just as it was by “liberal” English-speaking businessmen inside the country, led by large state-sponsored corporates like Anglo-American (what an interesting name for the leading South African minerals firm).

Do I want to dance on her grave, as so many young popsters of the 1980s did? Do I regret missing the impromptu party held for her death in Brixton, south London, my old stamping ground in my early 20s? No. Time brings with it a new understanding, a new respect for aspects of who she tried to be, in spite of her being, for me, in her day, the epitome of evil. She was the woman that was more patriarchal than the men and thus became the Supreme Leader. And she fought tooth and nail against feminism or any other open-minded doctrines. She is gone to dust. She played her part. That is all.

She represented a particular kind of hypocrisy too, which I saw portrayed on TV in South Africa when the Tories finally lost an election in 1997. The “Chairman of the British Conservatives in South Africa” sat at a terrace table, sipping a cocktail in the South African sunshine, and bemoaning the awful prospect of a “socialist” government in Britain. He wore, if memory serves correctly, a garish tie and sported a sunbed tan. You get the picture. Thatcher’s era was one that served up the spoilt, uneducated but newly monied classes of her Britain, the “businessmen” rather than the cautious and thoughtful, and spewed them out with their cash to many sunnier climes around the world. One such place was South Africa, which, back in the UK, we saw on our news screens on a daily basis as Casper armoured vehicles carried white policemen into the townships to instil order through violence and fear. A large number of Thatcher’s supporters ignored these pictures, took on her view that Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists,” and headed off to the promised land, one where, as Rian Malan pointed out many years ago, was one of the few where a simple handyman and plumber could afford to install a pool on his sizeable property (as long as he had the right colour skin). A strange kind of “equality for the ruthless,” Thatcher and the free market created.

I still long for a day when we do not focus at all on “major politicians”, as if they are somehow the single cause of our salvation or our destruction – a day when careful consensus is possible, we are all politicians in our own spheres, and the leading administrators of our countries are competent decision-makers but do not need to have the power to change millions of lives with one wrong move. And in a sense, perhaps that’s what’s happening. Obama has been on many levels desperately disappointing as a liberal President of the US, if you were expecting the man in that office to somehow “show up” for the world. What he actually represents is something else – that the presidency is becoming, symbolically, open to just about anyone; that the new Pope hails from Latin America is a similar example, whether he achieves anything or not in his moribund religion. They are figureheads who represent something incredible that is changing under the surface, whether they do anything amazing themselves or not. As Thatcher fades from memory, she will still be remembered as Britain’s first female Prime Minister, whatever the terrible compromises her soul underwent to achieve that position.

And for this reason I still look forward to the first elected black woman President of South Africa, or even further ahead to the first elected openly gay black President in Africa. While we still view these symbols of leadership as important in our collective consciousness, to see them reflecting the opening up of society to a broader, tolerant molarity is heart-warming, however half-witted those individuals themselves might be in office.

My grandmother Pat was an admirable woman, active and determined to the end of her life, socialist in her origins but attracted by the magnetism of having a “powerful woman” like Maggie in charge. Thatcher was certainly more inspiring for Pat than life with Paul, her freemason businessman second husband, but, though she ended up divorcing him, I know there was a quality Pat had never got from the collectivists and their libraries, that she found in Paul: a wish for everyone to have the chance at risking something, at putting themselves out there. It is that quality that I can now acknowledge as a positive aspect of our modern world that Thatcher also wanted to see, even if her quest for the “end of society” was deeply lacking in compassion. This modern quality, whereby we all have to risk, to recreate who we are, to find on an almost-daily basis a reason for why we’re here at the moment is still couched for too many people in deeply materialistic terms, as we are called on to market and sell ourselves to survive and thrive. But it is ultimately about something deeper – about the ability of each of us to be at the head of our own nation and religion, and the marriage of that to our economic potential. It could be exciting, if we choose to be brave enough to sell who we really are, warts and all, and in that recognise the deep value of our personal gifts to the world around us.