Sunday, January 7, 2007

What’s the word in Johannesburg? (pt. 2)

Here’s more of what I heard last Thursday morning (South Africa time) when I tuned in to Joburg’s Talk Radio 702:

At the top of every hour came the news. One story reported that, since December, there’ve been 70 drownings or near-drownings in and around Johannesburg. Which made me recall that black Americans happen to drown in significantly greater proportion than whites do. It’s a mystery no one can explain. (If you have a theory, I’d like to hear it.)

In other news, a Joburg traffic cop got run over by a car being towed by a taxi. Which made me recall that, even back in 2000 when I was there, the South African taxi industry was kind of shady. What they call “taxis” are actually minibuses, and they are the preferred mode of transport for the black working class. Consequently, there’s cutthroat competition between so-called “cartels” to control the business. This is referred to as the “taxi wars.”

One Godfrey Macheke was in the news for hacking his wife to death with an axe the week before. Police arrested him after finding blood stains in the trunk of his car.

There was news about South Africa’s neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe, a place that makes S.A. seem like Shangri-La by comparison. On this day, two thousand residents of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, were without electricity after thieves vandalized transformers and stole power cables. This wasn’t political sabotage; it seems that poor Zimbabweans steal transformer oil to mix with diesel fuel, and they “melt down cable to make pots and pans.”

As for good news, construction of a Cape Town soccer stadium got underway, with an eye toward the 2010 World Cup. (The World Cup is the biggest thing to happen to South Africa since black rule.) And, as in the U.S., there’s always room for a story about people’s eating habits; “A top scientist reports we’re becoming a nation of fatties,” a newsreader announced.

Host David O’Sullivan came on at 9 a.m. with his daily interview show. He had three cool guests on Thursday. Donald McRae, author of “Every Second Counts: The Race to Transplant the First Human Heart,” talked about American surgeons Adrian Kantrowitz, Norman Shumway and Richard Lower, who were literally hours away from being the first in the world to perform a human heart transplant. Of course, South African Christiaan Barnard beat them to it, gaining worldwide fame for himself and some good publicity for the apartheid government.

Later, O’Sullivan interviewed Sipho Ndzuzo of the South African Football Players’ Union. There are 1,500 professional soccer players in South Africa, and SAFPU wants them to have higher salaries and a pension plan. A former footballer himself, Ndzuzo brought to my mind Curt Flood and the U.S. sports labor movement.

The most fascinating interview was with Ian McRae (by sheer coincidence, Donald McRae’s father). He was chief executive of South Africa’s electric company, Eskom, during the waning years of apartheid. The story McRae tells is an intriguing sideways look at political history through the lens of electricity.

Ian McRae had the foresight to realize that white rule would soon end. “I didn’t know whether it would be armed struggle or political negotiation,” he told O’Sullivan, but a change was going to come. He went into the black townships “to have a look for myself,” and he saw “unbelievable poverty.” McRae figured the best way to avoid armed conflict would be to alleviate black poverty through economic growth. The first step to accomplishing that, he said, was providing electricity. This was the beginning of Eskom’s “Electricity for All” campaign.

Under apartheid, McRae said, only one-third of South Africans had electricity. Many blacks were denied electricity because of the “political risk.”

It was around 1987 that McRae began venturing into the townships. P.W. Botha was in power; the army occupied Soweto; the African National Congress was “banned.” Some whites warned McRae, an engineer, to stay out of politics. But black leaders in the townships told McRae that he should speak directly to the ANC. Aided by liberal white clergymen, he managed to make contact with mid-level ANC functionaries. “Of course, you can’t meet with the top people,” McRae explained. “They wouldn’t trust me.”

One night, at a secret meeting with 30 ANC members, McRae was told: “Before we answer any questions of yours, we want to ask you a question. What is your relation to the government?” McRae told them he was acting entirely on his own. Then he asked them: “Do you want electricity, and will you pay for it?”

“What we want,” they replied, “is an electricity company that we can trust, that will give us good service, and that we can rely on.”

Eventually, McRae met with Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. McRae was frank about his concern that the ANC might want to “nationalize” the power company. (Even though Eskom was a government-owned utility, it was – and still is – independently managed.) Mandela responded: “If the [ANC] government comes under pressure from the people, then you can expect the government to take control.” But if Eskom does its job and delivers good service to everyone, “the government will leave you alone.”

Today, Eskom provides electricity to more than 70 percent of South Africans. (“We need to move up into the 90s,” McRae said.) It is one of the ten largest power companies in the world.

Ian McRae has written a book about all this – “The Test of Leadership” – but apparently it’s only available in South Africa.

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