Category Archives: Politics

Excerpt From Kapuscinski’s ‘The Emperor’: On a Feudal Africa Kingdom and a Philosophy of Class Oppression

Extract taken from The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat, Ryszard Kapuscinski, 1983, Vintage International (English Translation).

Part III: The Collapse 

How, then, is one to confront this threatening creature that man seems to be, that we all are? How to tame him and daunt him? How to know that beast, how to master it? There is only one way my friend: by weakening him. Yes, by depriving him of his vitality, because without it he will be incapable of wrong. And to weaken is exactly what fasting does. Such is our Amharic philosophy, and this is what our fathers teach us. Experience confirms it. A man starved all his life will never rebel. Up north there was no rebellion. No one raised his voice or his hand there. But just start to let the subject eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness in going hungry is that a hungry man thinks only of bread. He’s all wrapped up in the thought of food. He loses the remains of his vitality in that thought, and he no longer has either the desire or the will to seek pleasure through the temptation of disobedience. Just think: Who destroyed our Empire? Who reduced it to ruin? Neither those who had too much, nor those who had too much, nor those who had nothing, but those who had a bit. Yes, one should always beware of those who have a bit, because they are the worst, they are the greediest, it is they who push upward.

The EmperorThe Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say this wasn’t an easy read but it was certainly a worthwhile one. Other GR members have written very comprehensive reviews so won’t repeat what has been adequately said. In summary Kapuściński’s journalistic nose is definitely attuned to the investigative.
Goodness knows how far he went in his efforts to interview such a wide selection of people, many intimately connected with the palace of emperor (Haile Selassie). Probably the best passage for me is his account of a feast for dignitaries, of how the plates pass out of the palace banquet along a chain of waiters to a distant kitchen and the sighing of the hungry masses who feed on the scraps passed to them. This description of the collective is possibly one of the most evocative I can ever recall.
Credit must also be given to the nameless interviewees who he denotes simply by initials. The book would not have been possible without them. I suspect Kapuściński infused the interviews with his own writing style. One gets the sense after reading a number of consecutive chapters. This is not to detract from the readability or authenticity of the tale in any way.
In conclusion a very interesting read of a medieval kingdom and it’s omnipotent demagogue that withstood the tide of the 20th century for 8 miraculous decades before it’s (and his) inevitable demise.
For another great excerpt read this post: https://leopassi.wordpress.com/2016/0…

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A Time for Change?

Certain notions can only develop with the passage of time. One of those notions is ‘change’. In one sense it seems intuitive; nothing remains constant over the course of one’s life. As we age our bodies change, families grow closer or don’t, friends come and go, society endorses something at a whim whilst another goes out the window, political parties fall in and out of favour, money inflates… nothing remains the same. Then there are all those catch phrases endorsing the word e.g be the change you want; change the world; change is a given etc. Ha ha, whilst writing this a very good cover of the Man in the Mirror by James Morrison is espousing the virtue on my Spotify music stream. I’m looking at the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.

The truth is that change IS a given but it also a very subjective entity. It always needs to be looked at in the context of its use. I suppose what I am getting at is that I am at one of those junctures where I would like to heed the title advice of Sheryl Crow’s number A Change Would do You Good (also on my playlist). The choice is between staying put and ruminating on getting another job and continuing in my effort to integrate into the society in which I have lived for the last year. Unlike the better part of previous year in Luton I have gone out and actually revived a few old habits and engaged with other people: mountain biking and playing my clarinet in a band being two such examples. And yes I have actually derived a good deal of pleasure from the latter and though I still mostly cycle on my own, to and from work, I’ve enjoyed a biking excursion to the Isle of Wight earlier this summer with some social riders as well as a peak at the lovely New Forest. Why then this underlying feeling of disconnect?

Perhaps it is down to a change, not so much within, but without. It’s not an easy change to define but it’s a feeling of protracted unease which seems to permeate through the lower and upper levels of British society regarding notions of identity. People don’t generally say much but a comment here and there betrays a disdain of the ‘foreign influx’. The meteoric rise of the right-leaning UKIP bears testimony to this. Now we have the In or Out Scotland debate I am seeing people who only weeks ago profess indifference becoming rather more vocal in opinion. The general gist of it is, who the heck does this Alec Salmond think he is even considering the notion of independence? My attempt to draw a corollary with the in-out debate on Europe is either met with a blank stare (how can you possibly equate the two?) or a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘This is not the same debate’ they seem keen to impress upon me. Really? Issues of taxation, how it is collected, where it is collected, and who decides to spend it? Issues of political representation and powers imposed from abroad? Issues of identity? etc

In all this I feel like an observer. I am a tax-paying citizen but I am an emigre. I came her a mere five years ago. What qualifies me to know what it means to be a British patriot? If it came to it I would take up arms for this country I suppose, but what would I be fighting for? I need to take up a position because I do believe in the principle. And so I feel a little disconcerted. Which way to lean? To the left, to the right or neither? In which case I adopt the position of most other emigre I have interacted with, notably the Eastern Europeans and Asians, and stay clear of politics and the identity debate. My gut feeling is that this is a debate for the English, especially after the Scots have had their say and more than likely take the independence offered them. After all who would win the right to a referendum on independence and then refute it? I will keep my head down for now.

Is Sovereign Democracy Failing Many of Us?

Two posts in two days! I’m on a roll… I’m sorry for my absence WP. I’ve missed you, honestly.

I’ve just returned from a brief holiday to South Africa where they were about to hold their fifth multi-party elections since the end of Apartheid 20 years ago. It got me thinking about the necessity of elections, their shortfalls and so forth. Here I try to put some of those thoughts into words:

Firstly the headline grabbers whose problems involve kidnappings, insurrection, armed conflict: CAR, northern Nigeria, South Sudan in Africa; Eastern Ukraine; Syria. These nations seem to dominate the ‘Rest of the World’ or ‘International’ sections of the on-line papers, yet if we broaden the net there seem to be an almost unprecedented number of countries or regions with a significant degree of instability. These problems tax the brains of the world’s finest scholars and policy-makers so I won’t try an exhaustive analysis. I’m informed primarily by my recent travels. In the last year I so happen to have been to 3 countries, all of who have all had elections of one sort or another, all with some degree of controversy: Turkey, Algeria and South Africa.

 I’m informed by my recent travels. In the last year I so happen to have been to 3 countries who have all had elections of one sort or another: Turkey, Algeria and South Africa.

Turks, both young and old, meet to discuss on a range of topical issues and concerns during the Gezi Park protests of last year.
Turks, both young and old, meet to discuss on a range of topical issues and concerns during the Gezi Park protests of last year.

I arrived in Turkey on a teaching assignment bang in the middle of the Gezi Park protests. That was purely coincidental as I had not been informed socially or politically on the state of affairs prior to taking up the contract. The language school was in northern Anatolia well away from Istanbul but the reverberations could still be felt in these parts,even if they tended to be more conservative. Whilst there the protests were eventually quashed, although the sentiments of the protesters are very much alive I see.

Banners of the AKP Party, Samsun, Turkey.
Banners of the Erdogan’s AKP Party, Samsun, Turkey. We joked that he was following us around the country from Istanbul to Samsun.

President Erdogan’s AKP party logo, banners, and regional offices were to be seen in most of the towns I visited (I circumnavigated the country over a month). The sad fact is that the only other Turkish political party I can name is the KPP and only because it is the political arm of a controversial Kurdish separatist movement, notorious for its defiance of Ankara, its determined fighters of both genders. The Kurdish cause is apparently one of the fundamental reason why Turkey has not been allowed to join the EU.

Whilst in Turkey I met an Algerian teacher with whom I shared a flat. If you have read any of my blogs on my Algerian excursion you will know all about my lovely friend Sofian Mihoub. I didn’t take him especially seriously when he invited me to visit him in Algeria after the trip. It took him several months to persuade me but I’m very glad he did eventually succeed. It was a country I knew net to nothing about. I went for two weeks after Christmas and experienced Algiers, the enigmatic but charming capital, and the east and south west of the vast nation. Best of all I actually got to talk to people on the ground, sometimes as a Westerner, sometimes as an Englishman, sometimes as a young(ish) man also trying to find his way in the wider world.

The Algerians fought a brutal war against the French colonisers who ruled them for the better part of a 130 years, yet French influence remains strong, and controversial to many I met.
The Algerians fought a brutal war against the French colonisers who ruled them for the better part of a 130 years, yet French influence remains strong, and controversial to many I met. Monument du Martyrs, Algiers.

What became apparent was that Algerians are as smart and diverse any group of people I’ve met in my life, whether it be in Africa, Europe or Asia. Sadly, like some of the young Turks I had met in Istanbul, they were quite severely disaffected by the politics. I was actually quite shocked at some of the derogatory terms they used in reference to the incumbent president, Abdelazziz Bouteflika. I must emphasize that this sentiment was coming from a fairly wide spectrum of young Algerians both conservative and more liberal. Yet, a couple of months down the line what do I read? President Bouteflika, running for a most undemocratic 4th term, wins some 81.5% of the vote.

 I was actually quite shocked at some of the derogatory terms they used in reference to the incumbent president, Abdelazziz Bouteflika. I must emphasize that this sentiment was coming from a fairly wide spectrum of young Algerians both conservative and more liberal. Yet, a couple of months down the line what do I read? President Bouteflika, running for a most undemocratic 4th term, wins some 81.5% of the vote.

On my most recent voyage to South Africa, on the verge of 20 years of multi-party democracy and its 5th general elections since 1994, I found a country in what felt like a state of hibernation. When I last visited in 2010 it was during the Fifa World Cup which created something of a bubble which concealed an economy slowing from the heady growth of the mid to late noughties (I lived there during 2007 for the better part of a year). Granted that I was visiting Durban during the Easter weekend and a smattering of public holidays, so it would be expected that the situation was a little more laid back. I’m just going by a general impression and having spent some time with friends and family. As for the elections, apart from a few posters and election vehicles blaring slogans it seemed to be much in the background – once again from the self-imposed limitations of my viewpoint.

The Democratic Alliance Leader smiles from a poster in the town of Fransschoek in the Western Cape. The DA won 60% of the vote in that province.
The Democratic Alliance Leader smiles from a poster in the town of Fransschoek in the Western Cape. The DA won 57% of the vote in that province, up 10% since the previous elections in ’09, but still only 22% of the net national vote.
A poster of the ANC and Jacob Zuma faces that of the DA and its leader Helen Zille, on another lamp-post nearby.
A poster of the ANC and Jacob Zuma faces that of the DA and its leader Helen Zille, on another lamp-post nearby.

Still, it is worth noting that the incumbent president, ANC leader Jacob Zuma, had been compromised. He was at the centre of the Nkandla scandal, having to explain why his rural homestead had seen some R246 million (around £14.1 million at today’s rates) spent on alleged ‘security upgrades’. It was the sort of scandal that would almost have certainly forced the resignation of any English MP, some who had been tarnished by far lesser amounts. Should this be a cause for concern? Of course! Despite Nkandla Zuma has successively won another four year term in office.

Now that I’m back in the UK the media spotlight, whether by design or because of my own RSS feed preferences, is back on the Middle East and Ukraine, European and British issues not withstanding. Today I read that several regions of Eastern Ukraine have announced autonomy from Kiev through self-organised referendums. These probably won’t be recognised by the new central government nor the West but I actually applaud these efforts at self-determination.

One young student in the East, when interviewed, said that he would vote along with many others because ‘we are tired of the ‘meddling, fascist government in the West (Kiev) who never did anyone any good.’

One young student in the East, when interviewed, said that he would vote along with many others because ‘we are tired of the ‘meddling, fascist government in the West (Kiev) who never did anyone any good.’

Interesting that he didn’t refer to them as the ‘new government’ but rather as the rulers in the Ukrainian capital collectively as fascists, whether it be that of Victor Yanukovych or Oleksander Turchinov i.e. this disillusionment is long-standing and has its roots further back than most of us Westerners can appreciate.

And thus to the nub of my ramblings; why has sovereign democracy failed so many and what can we do about it? Where do you stand on the issues regarding the governance of Ukraine/Egypt/Syria/your own sovereign nation? I will leave you with a little thought from an immensely successful capitalist, George Soros, whose preamble to a book he wrote a few years back resonated with me. I paraphrase:

Sovereignty is an anachronism employed by feudal rulers who ruled over a population who had not voted them in… Financial markets have gone global, they know no borders, yet politics insists on a notion of sovereignty which imposes borders, restrictions and tariffs contrary to notions of free trade and labour markets.

I might not necessarily agree with Mr Soros completely in his attempt to reduce sovereignty to the level of free market economics but I do think it could be the start of a rather interesting discourse…