Monday, December 2, 2013

A year in review

WITHOUT doubt 2013 reveals that the world is a restless place. Globalisation telescopes conflict and crisis into one’s digital consciousness. In South Africa we might be geographically distant, but we are still affected by whatever happens in the financial and political capitals of Europe and the US.

Our economy is more globally linked than other African ones, and so the dollar-based markets feed into our sense of well-being. South Africa, like so many developing countries, has heard voices demanding resources and an equitable share of wealth. Our service-delivery protests enjoy resonance in places as far afield as Brazil and Thailand.

Nor has South Africa been exempt from the modern slave-master, the bank-meister, whose fleecing of the middle-class with uncapped interest is duplicated by the micro-lenders squeezing the working-class. Marikana, and the extortionate wage demands of South African workers, are as much about debt as anything else.

Indeed, if I were to give any award for 2013 I would first give it to debt, the chief tool of 21st century oligarchs and their instrument of control. The US, which has re-defined the term “debt-ceiling”, is the only country in world history to have been able to print money to escape fiscal collapse.

This is because world currencies are dollar-based. The danger is not the dollar, but that these dollars are unsecured. The gold reserves disappeared during the Reagan and Thatcher years. Even the world’s biggest economy, China, is beholden to the dollar because of US debt.

Debt aside, we have a national election next year in which South Africa’s weakest post-apartheid president – already haunted by Arms Deal corruption – faces allegations of lying to parliament and abusing state funds, this whilst being upstaged by a political upstart, Julius Malema, who himself faces a litany of corruption charges.

Then there was the implosion of the Arab Awakening with Egypt going full circle from an infant democracy to an old-style dictatorship. The Egyptian deep-state, the military, allowed President Muhammad Morsi to stumble before conducting a coup, and then collecting 12 billion dollars in aid from anti-Brotherhood Gulf countries.

In Libya, things went from bad to worse, Prime Minister Ali Zaidan making a passionate plea last month for the militias to lay down their arms. Zaidan himself had been kidnapped by one of the militia groupings, whose agendas range from tribal fiefdoms to pan-Islamic Salafi-Wahhabi caliphates.

The release of millions of arms from Gaddafi’s armouries, as well as NATO surreptiously supplying the rebels in 2011, has seen unaccounted Libyan weapons filtering into neighbouring states such as Niger and Mali. These weapons have empowered a host of Salafi-Wahhabi brigands and Taureg insurrectionists throughout Africa.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Al-Ansaru, for example, are believed to have benefitted enormously from this uncontrolled flow of arms. Both the Tunisian and Algerian governments have expressed anxiety on the issue.

For Tunisia, a cautious Arab Awakening success story, uncontrolled arms flows could be a tipping point. A former Tunisian diplomat told me that the country could ill afford to be distracted by armed extremists smashing historical tombs and trying to impose a one-eyed Shari’ah.

For Israel, 2013 has been a challenging year. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been banging the Iranian war drum for months, was reportedly “angered” by the recent Geneva nuke deal with Tehran – a deal unlikely to have been struck had Israel’s interests not been considered.

But his visits to the White House in September, accompanied by diplomatic fanfare, had seen him returning to Tel Aviv empty-handed on the big prize, US support for strikes against Iran.

And whilst Israel may be happier with the Egyptian military, it will be watching, with keen interest, peace talks on Syria in January 2014. Israel is a land of macho-politics, and its way out of weakness is to rattle the sabre. That is why Ehud Olmert attacked Lebanon in 2006, and why I fear for Netanyahu should things not go his way.

In 30 years I have never seen a conflict impact so disagreeably on the Muslim psyche as the Syrian one. It has triggered off a partisan response dominated by an acrimonious Shi’ah-Sunni debate that does not fit the Syrian model. For this, Saudi Arabia – fearing the approach a “Shi’ah crescent” into the Gulf  – has to shoulder as much of the blame as Iran.   

In Pakistan, one has to ask whether it was prime stupidity or deliberate CIA gamesmanship that saw a US drone killing the Taliban leader, Hikmatullah Mehsud, only hours before talks with the government on a peace deal.

On the Palestinian side, there is little to hope for. The funeral procession of Oslo has gone. The West Bank has been surgically pared into hundreds of disjointed slivers of land by illegal settlements. Jerusalem is surrounded. Gaza has been locked down. The ethnic cleansing project is almost complete. The much-vaunted talks have only precipitated Israeli settlement building.

The only glimmer of hope, amidst a flickering BDS campaign and the ongoing Mavi Marmara trial in Istanbul, comes from South Africa – a country whose pro-Palestinian stance has become well-known via the suggestion of Nelson Mandela that South  Africans would not be free until Palestinians were.

In October, the Ahmad Kathrada Foundation supported by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, launched a project entitled the “Free Marwaan Barghouti and all Palestinian Political Prisoners Campaign”.

The 54 year-old Barghouti, a leading figure of the two intifadahs, is probably the most celebrated of Palestine’s 5,000 political prisoners held by Israel. Seen as a unifying figure, Barghouti was behind the Prisoner’s Document of 2006 signed by all Palestinian factions that called for return to 1967 borders.

Barghouti, a Fatah stalwart who confronted the leadership in 1996 on issues of corruption, was once a strong advocate of Oslo. He became a leader of Tanzim, Fatah’s military wing. In 2002 he was abducted from the West Bank (in contravention of the Geneva Convention) to face a terror trial in Israel (another contravention) and sentenced to four life sentences in 2004.

For the first time – and one often wonders why only now - the Palestinian question has a single focal point, the release of political prisoners with Barghouti as its figurehead. This is a direct borrowing from the anti-apartheid campaign that rallied so successfully around Nelson Mandela. But, will it be able to do so around the figure of Barghouti? That’s a story for 2014.

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