Thursday, 28 April 2011

Forget me Knot

Just got back from the Cleethorpes Memorial service for workers on International workers Memorial Day. Despite the melancholy nature of the event I think it went pretty well. The weather was good, nice and sunny with a cooling sea breeze, and there was a big turnout, with delegates and speakers from the local Labour group both Council and party, every Trade Union operating in our region (North East Lincolnshire, and North Lincolnshire there's a bit of an overlap) relatives of some of those killed in work related accidents in our area Unfortunately Northern Lincolnshire, is above the national average in this regard due to the towns Scunthorpe, Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Immingham and the surrounding villages are home to a large number of refineries and chemical plants, which contribute to the injuries and deaths from warehouse and factory accidents. There was even a delegation from the local Liberals ,well only two of them, but to there credit these two had supporting the event and the campaign for recognition before that, and kept the speech non-partisan so I have no objections to there attendance. Strangely though no local Tories turned up, maybe they collectively had a scheduling mishap, perhaps something had gone awry with the royal wedding preparations? or they didn't fancy having to answer for the ConDems "Easing business regulation" plans that will gut Health and Safety measures on our docks, airports and transport hubs? who can say if they won't.

Unfortunately since this was a memorial service it wasn't long before the content started to but dampen the mood. 151 killed in work related deaths in UK last year, and that figure does not include those killed while driving, or those whom have succumb from a work related injury or illness contracted several years prior. And an estimate of 2 million killed on the job globally. The speakers made a very good point, if every work related death received an eighth of the media attention that are service men receive when then sadly are killed in relation to there work (funny since the army used to a few years ago advertise the statistics that your more likely to be killed in a civilian occupation then as a front-line servicemen)then there would be a lot more pressure on government and employers to clean up there act.

If a country lost two million in a year due to war, there would be a lot of questions being asked to why, are the Generals incompetent? is the equipment or training inadequate? and what solutions are being offered to prevent next years 2 million casualties. But alas work related injury and deaths do not receive much attention, outside of the Morning Star. I couldn't even find details about today's service in the local paper I had to ring up a friend and double check the starting time.

Even big global disasters that are guaranteed to sell copies and get viewers usually ignore the human costs, like the Oil rig of the coast of the US, how much time was spent on the 11 workers killed in the explosion before the "mainstream" newsreaders started discussing things like stock hits and loss of confidence? not much. They didn't even bother covering the environmental impact in detail until heartbreaking pictures of oil covered animals started coming in. Nor did they show much interest in the loss of livelihoods suffered by the small fishermen and local business until people started getting angry and the issue of compensation numbering in the hundred millions started to turn a few heads.

In short we must as this memorial day implores us, remember the dead and continue to fight for the living.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Another Day of Life

Sorry for the quiet time, after attending the Union march on the 26th I had to work to get a lot of assignments finished. Anyway in between them I managed to find time to read Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski Cold War journalist of much acclaim and controversy. The book is his account of both the last days of Portuguese colonialism, and the early months of the Civil War that followed.

One thing that has annoyed me greatly is the almost universal (in the west at least, maybe other regions and countries are better at this) "whitewashing" if you'll forgive the term of African history. Africa has a wealth of experience of conflict, liberation, subjugation, peace, compromise, mediation, Socialism, Marxism, Nationalism, Pan-Nationalism, Capitalism, formal and informal trade, cultural exchange, regional entities etc. Yet at best it is either depicted as a continent of passive victims, genuine lessons about the evils of imperialism and warnings of continued exploitation by the industrialised North and East are watered down by this perception that it is up to the benevolent Liberal sensibility of those nations to save the day usually ignoring the knowledge and resistance to those forces done on the ground and at high risk. Or even worse problems on the continent are seen as evidenced of native inferiority, words like "Tribal" and "Warlord" are thrown about without proper context or explanation. You could actually see a bit of this in the reporting of the earthquake in Haiti which of course is not in Africa it just shares ethnic and cultural links to it.

The most well known events of modern Africa are of course the fall of Apartheid in the South Africa, but again in the west there are some problems with the retelling of the tale. Most of the thanks goes not to the internal resistance to the regime of "Boer" supremacists or the Cubans dying to check South Africa's military expansion,but to the boycott movement, its true that the boycotting of South Africa helped and those who took part in it should rightly be proud. However as North Korea has shown an regime can survive no matter how marginalised globally so long as internal dissent is contained or non existent, also if it wasn't for the brutal repression of civil rights activists black and white like that ugly joke went "how many South African police does it take to crack an egg? none it fell down the stars" would enough people in the West care enough to say no to South African orange? I'm guessing no.

This is why I find Another Day so refreshing it like the documentary on Burkina Faso's Martyred revolutionary Thomas Sankara, seen here on Youtube and a few others get past the cultural blinkers and show us at least a glimpse of Africans acting on their own, responding to the great challenges that push down on them, sometimes successful sometimes not, but always acting like real proactive human beings.

The Civil war that forms both the "setting" and "narrative" of the book is perhaps most famous for two things first its length (late 1975-2002) and a battle outside a small southern town involving Cubans and Afrikaners , but despite that being in the 80's the events of Angola's turbulent birth as an independent nation can be seen as a dry run for South Africa's later invasion of its northern neighbour (Namibia was of coursed occupied by South Africa at this time giving it a direct land border with Angola's southern region.

The first section of this 144 page book describes the evacuation of the Portuguese from the Capital Luanda, how they stripped everything of value they could physically drag to the Airport and docks, there fears about "black primitives" coming out of there mud huts in the African quarters (a universal feature of colonialism in Africa was that the natives didn't even enjoy freedom of movement in the cities that were built by them on their own land) with sharpened knives, and their resentment at having wasted 40 or more years trying to tame these savage lands and build a new life for themselves. Many Portuguese colonists where relatively new as the then recently deposed Dictatorship of Salazar's cronies used the colonies as a dumping ground for the poor and restless. And the physical decay of Luanda as the infrastructure and services of the city one by one breakdown or leave, this was before the agreed official hand over of power to Angola in November 1975 which meant that all official state functions and property like the fire service and police where still under Portuguese control which meant that the Angolans couldn't legally replace them without violating the agreement leaving the few citizens left in the cities with a rough few weeks in the Autumn run up while the Faction (there where three) in control cobbled together its own replacements. Water pumping stations for example where kept running until fighting damaged them as an accepting feature of the war was those without water surrender or day quickly. But in the case of Luanda the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was usually able to repair them after a counter attack.

The second section is about Ryszard's travels to the "front" unlike in Europe, the geographical features of Angola and much of Africa mean there exist a different form of warfare. Things like heat, and water scarcity meant that long lines of trenches and fortifications with clear statements of who controls what where infeasible. So a front was where ever a isolated unit happened to be stationed and territory was divided up based on who was the last faction to enter the village or town. To get to a front often meant passing through a number of checkpoints with almost no way to tell which faction held what ahead of time, since uniforms helmets and flags where pretty scarce. Given that the Civil War was from its start tied up in both African regional ambitions between Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the North and South Africa in the... well South and the global Cold War meant that foreigners like Ryszard from Warsaw where by default considered supporter of one Faction or another. In Ryszard's case he was sided with the MPLA due to the Soviet Union's support for that movement, in fact early anti-MPLA propaganda incited the murder of any East European in the country because of this. The trick was to call the guards either Camrada (comrade, for MPLA) or Irmao (brother for other factions) in a way that couldn't be heard properly so the guards would identify themselves asking for a repeating.

After a cross country tour of all the fronts, Ryszard while at the MPLA's most southern front hears rumours from a friendly Portuguese who initially fled to Namibia before returning after the massacres and looting long feared didn't materialise and his mother ended up baking bread for an MPLA unit, that the South Africans have been amassing across the border and have been recruiting local mercenaries, Portuguese exiles and UNITA troops for what can only be a big push straight up for Luanda and the MPLA national headquarters. The third faction the FLNA in North has an understanding with UNITA and the support of Zaire and will also be making a push down South in a coordinated attack on the MPLA. This means that Ryszard is in a unique position as one of the few journalists in Angola (the Portuguese media is more concerned with the turbulent domestic situation at the present) and who is friendly to the MPLA and has contacts with Poland which I'm sure we all know who else he has contact with by association (hint they drink Vodka) all of which add up to an immediate race by Car back to the Capital through no mans land and past several battles in a scene that would look great in a film adaptation to inform the Polish Press Agency whom will no doubt inform Moscow.

After passing on the message unaware if he is too late, remember the borders are confused and there little in the way of national communications, he is contacted by two Cuban military advisers for a chat. The airport and ports are still at this point in the hands of the Portuguese as the deadline for independence 11th November is a week or to off, which is probably why the South Africans where desperate to invade right away and finish off the MPLA before the gates where opened to economic and military assistance, after all even though Portugal is still Officially in control of the country its clearly in capable of resisting or punishing South Africa if it took offence to this technical invasion. And since the MPLA is nominally Communist the Western powers wouldn't shed more then Crocodile tears over there demise especially if South Africa generously gave power back to a FNLA-UNITA alliance, neither faction posed much threat to its regime.

You might be wondering what made Angola such a special interest for Cuba, since the 1970's where a decade of Insurgency with many Guerilla armies existing in Africa and South America why focus on Angola? well apart from first getting into contact with the MPLA during their ill fated Congo mission Angola and Cuba have an intertwined history. Angola was the capital of the slave trade, many Africans where captured and shipped over sea's when the Portuguese figured out how to exploit the inter tribal rivalries to negotiate "contracts" for captured prisoners. In fact the majority of Blacks living in Cuba, Brazil and the Dominican Republic ancestors where shipped from Angolan ports. So interlinked where these states that when the People's Republic of Angola was announced by the MPLA leader and first Native President Agostinho Neto the first country to recognise them was actually Brazil despite the vast political differences between them.

So when the MPLA began there Revolution it was the Cubans rather then the Soviets who first stepped up to the plate, in Solidarity and provided assistance. When the Airport in Luanda was relinquished to Angola the first planes to land where Cuban Airliners carrying troops and supplies.

Needless to say despite a close call the assault is repulsed and by March 76 the South Africans withdraw. They would return for a visit on occasion, officially they went into Angola the first time to protect the dam systems on the Cunene river that forms a natural border between Angola and Namibia. On aside note the South African "Defence" Minister at the time was Pieter Willem Botha who go on to lesser things in human terms. The final section of the book is an appendix for those unfamiliar with Angola and the conflict, it includes a history of the Portuguese colony and the new nation, as well as a time line of important events in regards to the forming of the three major factions, what they believed and who supported them. In fact it might be worth reading the final section first to acquaint yourself with some background information and key terms.

This book is a short and concise summary of the beginnings of Angola and the civil war and the MPLA, and I highly recommend it as a starting point for those interested in them and Africa as a whole.

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