Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Memory Police

The freedom of historical debate is under attack by the memory police

Well-intentioned laws that prescribe how we remember terrible events are foolish, unworkable and counter-productive

Among the ways in which freedom is being chipped away in Europe, one of the less obvious is the legislation of memory. More and more countries have laws saying you must remember and describe this or that historical event in a certain way, sometimes on pain of criminal prosecution if you give the wrong answer. What the wrong answer is depends on where you are. In Switzerland, you get prosecuted for saying that the terrible thing that happened to the Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman empire was not a genocide. In Turkey, you get prosecuted for saying it was. What is state-ordained truth in the Alps is state-ordained falsehood in Anatolia.

This week a group of historians and writers, of whom I am one, has pushed back against this dangerous nonsense. In what is being called the "Appel de Blois", published in Le Monde last weekend, we maintain that in a free country "it is not the business of any political authority to define historical truth and to restrict the liberty of the historian by penal sanctions". And we argue against the accumulation of so-called "memory laws". First signatories include historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Jacques Le Goff and Heinrich August Winkler. It's no accident that this appeal originated in France, which has the most intense and tortuous recent experience with memory laws and prosecutions. It began uncontroversially in 1990, when denial of the Nazi Holocaust of the European Jews, along with other crimes against humanity defined by the 1945 Nuremberg tribunal, was made punishable by law in France - as it is in several other European countries. In 1995, the historian Bernard Lewis was convicted by a French court for arguing that, on the available evidence, what happened to the Armenians might not correctly be described as genocide according to the definition in international law.

A further law, passed in 2001, says the French Republic recognises slavery as a crime against humanity, and this must be given its "consequential place" in teaching and research. A group representing some overseas French citizens subsequently brought a case against the author of a study of the African slave trade, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, on the charge of "denial of a crime against humanity". Meanwhile, yet another law was passed, from a very different point of view, prescribing that school curricula should recognise the "positive role" played by the French presence overseas, "especially in North Africa".

Fortunately, at this point a wave of indignation gave birth to a movement called Liberty for History (, led by the French historian Pierre Nora, which is also behind the Appel de Blois. The case against Pétré-Grenouilleau was dropped, and the "positive role" clause nullified. But it remains incredible that such a proposal ever made it to the statute book in one of the world's great democracies and homelands of historical scholarship.

This kind of nonsense is all the more dangerous when it comes wearing the mask of virtue. A perfect example is the recent attempt to enforce limits to the interpretation of history across the whole EU in the name of "combating racism and xenophobia". A proposed "framework decision" of the justice and home affairs council of the EU, initiated by the German justice minister Brigitte Zypries, suggests that in all EU member states "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes" should be "punishable by criminal penalties of a maximum of at least between one and three years imprisonment".

Who will decide what historical events count as genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, and what constitutes "grossly trivialising" them?

International humanitarian law indicates some criteria, but exactly what events qualify is a matter of often heated dispute. The only cast-iron way to ensure EU-wide uniformity of treatment would be for the EU to agree a list - call it the Zypries List - of qualifying horrors. You can imagine the horse-trading behind closed doors in Brussels. (Polish official to French counterpart: "OK, we'll give you the Armenian genocide if you give us the Ukrainian famine.") Pure Gogol.

Since some countries with a strong free-speech tradition, including Britain, objected to Zypries' original draft, the proposed agreement now also says: "Member states may choose to punish only conduct which is either carried out in a manner likely to disturb public order or which is threatening, abusive or insulting." So in practice, individual countries will continue to do things their own way.

Despite its manifold flaws, this framework decision was approved by the European Parliament in November 2007, but it has not been brought back to the justice and home affairs council for final approval. I emailed the relevant representative of the current French presidency of the EU to ask why, and just received this cryptic but encouraging reply: "The FD 'Racism and xenophobia' is not ready for adoption, as it is suspended to some outstanding parliamentary reservations." Merci, madame liberté: that will do till the end of this year. Then let the Czech presidency of the EU, which covers the first half of next year, strike it down for good - with a dose of the Good Soldier Svejk's common sense about history.

Let me be clear. I believe it is very important that nations, states, peoples and other groups (not to mention individuals) should face up, solemnly and publicly, to the bad things done by them or in their name. The West German leader Willy Brandt falling silently to his knees in Warsaw before a monument to the victims and heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto is, for me, one of the noblest images of postwar European history. For people to face up to these things, they have to know about them in the first place. So these subjects must be taught in schools as well as publicly commemorated. But before they are taught, they must be researched. The evidence must be uncovered, checked and sifted, and various possible interpretations tested against it.

It's this process of historical research and debate that requires complete freedom - subject only to tightly drawn laws of libel and slander, designed to protect living persons but not governments, states or national pride (as in the notorious article 301 of the Turkish penal code). The historian's equivalent of a natural scientist's experiment is to test the evidence against all possible hypotheses, however extreme, and then submit what seems to him or her the most convincing interpretation for criticism by professional colleagues and for public debate. This is how we get as near as one ever can to truth about the past.

How, for example, do you refute the absurd conspiracy theory, which apparently still has some currency in parts of the Arab world, that "the Jews" were behind the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York? By forbidding anyone from saying that, on pain of imprisonment? No. You refute it by refuting it. By mustering all the available evidence, in free and open debate. This is not just the best way to get at the facts; ultimately, it's the best way to combat racism and xenophobia too. So join us, please, to see off the nanny state and its memory police.

by T. G. Ash

Sppliting ANC

Another political heavyweight has quit South Africa's ruling African National Congress as dissidents prepare to launch a rival party after the former president, Thabo Mbeki, was toppled from power by supporters of Jacob Zuma.

Mbhazima Shilowa, a former trade union leader and ex-premier of the country's industrial and financial heartland around Johannesburg and Pretoria, resigned from the ANC over what he called the "putsch" against Mbeki, who was ordered by the party leadership under Zuma to resign as South Africa's president last month.

Shilowa said he was backing Mbeki's former defence minister, Mosiuoa Lekota, who announced he was "serving divorce papers" on the ANC last week. The party suspended Lekota this week.

The rebels plan to call a national convention "in defence of democracy" on November 2 which is expected to be the launch pad for a rival to the ANC as the party fractures over political and, to a lesser extent, ethnic differences.

Shilowa said he would establish a preparatory committee of "prominent individuals" ahead of the convention to tour the country and generate support.

The ANC's national executive held a special session yesterday to discuss the split. The leadership said it would act "very decisively" to rid the party of factionalism.

Zuma claimed the new party would get nowhere. "It's cold out there if you are out of the ANC, very cold," he said.

There is little likelihood of the ANC losing next year's general election, but if Lekota and his allies can get a serious breakaway movement off the ground, it could eat into the ruling party's two-thirds majority in parliament.

Two of the ANC's provincial ministers are expected to quit in the mostly Xhosa eastern Cape, where there is discontent not only because it is Mbeki's home province, but because of unhappiness at the Zuma camp's emphasis on their leader's Zulu roots. Lekota condemned the T-shirts worn by Zuma's supporters at the ANC convention in December that declared him to be "100% Zulu", a jibe at accusations that Mbeki headed a "Xhosa nostra" at the top of the ANC.

A Day With Ferran Adria

by Jay Rayner

One of the pleasures of my working life – it's a very long list – is that I am forced, by dint of my job, to create a lasting record of all the fun I have. In the reviews I write, I document the delicious things I get to eat. Well this time, with my trip to meet Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, I've gone one better. The whole thing's been filmed and you can watch the result above. Or at least almost the whole thing; the one part they wouldn't let us film was me having dinner. No cameras in the dining room.

Frankly, while I knew it left a gap in the film, I was delighted. I wanted the full experience and I knew I couldn't have that with a lens stuffed in my face. Still, you can at least get a sense of the effect the meal had both on me and my companion, the chef Stephen Harris, from The Sportsman pub in Kent. The last scene, as we leave and give our considered opinion of the meal, giddy as children, is possibly the most authentic portrait you will ever see of two smug middle-aged gits hugging themselves with glee.

I will confess that I had assumed I would never get to El Bulli. Don't mistake; I did want to eat there. After all the things I'd read and heard, how could someone with as developed an interest in his dinner as me not want to go there? But I am just not the sort to strive for such a thing. The bookings procedure seemed too much a lottery – there are two million requests for just seven or eight thousand seats – for a man like me, with a back bone of marshmallow, to make the effort. I chalked it up, alongside the flight on Concord and the threesome with Cameron Diaz and Dita Von Teese, as something that was NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.

And then, praise be, it fell into my lap courtesy of the publication of the new book, A Day at El Bulli. If the film doesn't completely sate your appetite for all things El Bulli while you're waiting to get hold of the book, you can read my account of my meeting with Ferran Adrià in this weekend's Observer Food Monthly.

These are indeed rich times for those of us intrigued by what's going on at the very sharpest diamond edge of gastronomy. For, alongside the Adrià book, comes the publication of Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a behemoth of a volume with a retail price of £100, about which more total cobblers will be written than has been written about any other book in recent history. I have been dragging my copy around the country with me for the past few days as I prepare to write a review – read wet-knickered piece of fan mail – and I can't imagine how anybody could be anything other than amazed by it.

Let's be clear: the Big Fat Duck Cookbook is only a cookbook in the sense that El Bulli is just somewhere you go to eat if you're feeling a bit peckish. El Bulli is a once in a lifetime event and so is Heston's opus. It is a document, a complete account of everything he has done or tried to do at his restaurant in Bray. It carries remarkable illustrations, fabulous photography, and is rich with detail, analysis and acute self-understanding. It also happens to be very well written.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that what people like Adrià and Blumenthal are doing is only for the total propeller heads; that its appeal is thoroughly limited. Well let's look at the numbers. Not just those two million requests for tables at El Bulli. How about the hundreds who have booked into see Ferran Adrià speak and answer questions at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 24? Or the fact that, at the point of writing, Blumenthal's £100 book is standing at number 68 in the rankings, ahead of titles by Ken Follett, Jackie Collins and Ian Rankin? Or that Adrià's book, is really not that far behind at number 195?

The point, I think, is made.

Hear that noise? It's the sound of an army of propeller heads getting excited. And I'm one of them.

All Dyslexic Now? (A Letter)

SIR – Wandering down a street in London is a nightmare for walkers trying to determine on which side to pass, with oncoming pedestrians as likely to veer to the right as the left (in North America, people usually extend the rules of driving to the sidewalk and stick to the right). The escalator signs on the Underground read: “Stand on the Right Except to Pass”. London’s street-crossings alert us to “Look Right” and “Look Left”, but the warnings are presumably for foreigners. Leave London and the rules are more haphazard.

Cultural left-right chaos abounds. Drive on the left, stand on the right, and walk somewhere in between. Labour frees the central bank, balances budgets, and invades Iraq. Conservatives support universal health care, gay rights, and are concerned for the poor. Is New Labour dead? If Britain has no rules for left or right, how can it even identify the body?

John Swettenham

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

There Is Hope

Despite the persistence of Africa’s natural and man-made horrors, the latest trend is cheeringly positive

UNTIL the past few weeks of global turmoil, Africa’s doughty band of boosters were feeling they at last had something to smile about. After four decades of political and economic stagnation that kept most of their 800m-odd people in poverty and gloom, the continent’s 48 sub-Saharan countries have been growing for the past five years at a perky overall rate of 5% or so. If they maintain this pace or even bump it up a bit, Africa still has a chance of taking off. Now, with commodity prices likely to fall, world markets sure to shrivel and Western aid set to plateau or even dip, Africa, though more isolated from the global economy than other parts of the world, is bound to suffer from its ill breeze. But maybe not as badly. Once described by this newspaper, perhaps with undue harshness, as “the hopeless continent”, it could yet confound its legion of gloomsters and show that its oft-heralded renaissance is not just another false dawn prompted by the passing windfall of booming commodity prices, but the start of something solid and sustainable. Despite its manifold and persistent problems of lousy governments and erratic climates (see article), Africa has a chance of rising.

Pessimists have plenty of evidence to call on. There have been spurts of growth before, especially when commodity prices have risen sharply. But when those prices have fallen, growth has fizzled. Africa’s few recent successes tend to be set against a previous history of disaster. Ghana, for instance, is often cited as one of the most hopeful cases, but at independence in 1957 it was nearly as well off as South Korea; now, despite its recent bounce, it is still some 30 times poorer in wealth per person. The lively growth in several other hopeful spots—for instance, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda—must likewise be set against the horrors of their quite recent past. In fact, the sole country in Africa with a record of consistently strong political and economic progress is Botswana.

Many basic indices remain grim. Africans’ lifespan is still declining, owing largely to the scourge of AIDS, 60% of whose worldwide victims are African. A recent World Bank paper was guarded as to whether the African surge would last. Most of the quicker growth, it notes, is due to soaring revenues enjoyed by just eight sub-Saharan African countries blessed with oil. A third of Africa’s countries—by far the highest proportion in any continent—are trapped in civil wars or cycles of violent unrest. The two biggest in area, Sudan and Congo, are ravaged by strife and misgovernment. Zimbabwe, once a jewel of southern Africa, is still a nightmare, despite a recent agreement to forge a government of national unity. The World Bank paper bemoans Africa’s standards of governance.

Perhaps even more worrying, in the past year or so, three of Africa’s leading countries have had heavy setbacks. Nigeria’s election was the shoddiest since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999; Kenya, east Africa’s hub, succumbed to ethnic mayhem after a disputed poll; and South Africa, easily the sub-Saharan continent’s leading power in every way, producing one-third of its entire GDP, has entered an ugly phase of politics, authoritarian if not yet undemocratic, just when it should be setting an example of tolerant pluralism to the rest of Africa. The recent violence against black foreigners is a reminder that the bottom third of South Africans still face gnawing poverty.

All the same, the boosters’ case is stronger than before. Political freedom, however patchy, is commoner than it was a generation ago. Two-thirds of African countries now limit presidential terms; at least 14 leaders (with a few bad exceptions) have felt obliged to step down as a result. Multi-party systems, however fraught, are more usual; the notion of political accountability and choice is more widely accepted. The media, partly because of the internet, are livelier. The latest index of African governance funded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born telecoms mogul, suggests a general improvement.

The presumption of state control under the rubric of “African socialism” (an illusory third way) has been junked. Most local leaders accept that Africa must join the global economy to prosper, however shaky it looks right now. The mobile-phone revolution has hugely helped Africans, especially poor peasants and traders. Banking systems are modernising and mortgages more readily offered to an emerging middle class. Businessmen around the world have been investing more, especially in Africa’s better-governed countries. Even those that lack natural wealth have grown a bit faster. The spectacular advent of China into Africa’s market is, on balance, a bonus.

Another report, co-sponsored by the World Bank, gently dissents from the certitudes of the “Washington consensus” that pure free marketry could cure all, and that Africa must just open up to trade, tighten its fiscal strings and sell off the state. One size in varied Africa does not fit all. The rich world could, for instance, offer time-limited trade preferences.

Other devices could help too. America’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 has spurred African exports by dropping American tariffs. Another promising new mechanism is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary code that a score of African countries have adopted, with governments and foreign firms accounting openly for their dealings—in contrast to mineral-rich Congo, whose government ludicrously claimed in 2006 to have received only $86,000 in mineral earnings. The creation of national savings funds in commodity-flush countries is another good idea. On the farming front, issuing individual land titles, no easy task in a continent where much land is still communally held, is another. Pragmatism often beats dogma.

So Africa has a rare chance to break out of its poverty trap. It would be hard even if governments were honest and efficient. Sadly, most are still not. Amid all the grim drawbacks of climate, disease, illiteracy and ethnic division, bad and corrupt government is still by far the biggest. But the news overall is cheerier. And the rich world, troubled as it is, must never give up in its effort to help the poor one to stand on its own feet.

(from The Economist)


Have you ever felt a giant and then a dwarf?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Death of a Penalty

The world is moving closer to the final abolition of the death penalty, according to the latest figures published to coincide with World Day against the Death Penalty yesterday. At present, five countries are responsible for almost all the state executions carried out in the past year.

So far, 137 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, while 60 retain its use, usually for people convicted of murder. At least 1,252 people were known to have been executed in 24 countries in 2007. Of all the executions in 2007, 88% took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US.

By the end of 2007, 91 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, with Albania, the Cook Islands and Rwanda all recently abandoning capital punishment, said Reprieve, which represents death-row prisoners around the world. "The reality is that, despite the progress that has been made over the last 18 months, there are still thousands of people being executed every year around the world," said Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve.

In Europe, only Belarus retains capital punishment. Abandonment of the death penalty is a prerequisite for joining the EU. The US is the only country in the Americas to have carried out any executions since 2003 but the 53 executions in 2006 represented the lowest annual total for a decade, and death sentences continue to drop from a peak in the mid-1990s.

China makes by far the most use of the penalty. "Asia leads the way globally as the continent that carries out the most executions," said Amnesty International's UK director, Kate Allen. "The number of executions carried out by China last year makes them the world's No 1 'executioner'. This year we have seen a noticeable increase in the use of the death penalty in Japan. Executions in that country are typically shrouded in secrecy. In Pakistan there are approximately 7,500 people, including children, on death row."

In some areas with a long tradition of executions, such as central Asia, there is a clear move towards abolition.

In Africa, only six countries carried out executions in 2006. In seven states the death penalty is applied for consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex, while Iran retains the death penalty for a large number of offences, among them "cursing the Prophet", adultery and drinking alcohol. Last year, Iran executed 317 people, including eight juveniles.

12th Oct - Day To Remember

Friday, October 10, 2008

Joerg Haider (RIP)

Intelligent and charismatic, very popular specially in his native Carinthia region of Austria, he had all the wrong policies.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


The Other Rainbow: Recycling

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Read & Listen

I just came home with a bag full of books... and a CD.

If consumerism is a Capital Sin... just wondering if buying culture (music, literature) and buying in a charity... becomes it in Venial Sin?

The Cd is called Eduardo Niebla & Adel Salameh´s Mediterraneo... amazing guitars.

The books are..

- For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway... the classic novel based in the Spanish Civil War.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules of the best science fiction adventure I know.
- Interlunar, by Margaret Atwood... let´s see how is it. Last week I bought her The Blind Assassin but it´s still on the table.
- Greatly Exaggerated, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, edited by Alex Ayres... expect more than one quote from the great American writer, like...

"A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read"

SA: A Rainbow in B&W?

White flight from South Africa

Between staying and going

Violent crime and political turmoil are adding to South Africa’s brain drain

FIRST he thought it was a mouse, then a rat—and then the rat shot him in the face. That is how André Brink, one of South Africa’s most famous novelists, described the recent killing of his nephew Adri, at home at 3am in the morning. The young man was left to die on the floor, in front of his wife and daughter, while his killers ransacked the house.

Such murders are common in South Africa. According to Mr Brink’s account, published later in the Sunday Independent, 16 armed attacks had already taken place in a single month within a kilometre of the young couple’s plot north of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. Soon afterwards—this is more unusual—the police arrested a gang of six. They recovered a laptop and two mobile phones. That was the haul for which Adri paid with his life.

A decade-and-a-half after the end of apartheid, violent crime is pushing more and more whites out of South Africa. Exactly how many are leaving is impossible to say. Few admit that they are quitting for good, and the government does not collect the necessary statistics. But large white South African diasporas, both English- and Afrikaans-speaking, have sprouted in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and many cities of North America.

The South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank, guesses that 800,000 or more whites have emigrated since 1995, out of the 4m-plus who were there when apartheid formally ended the year before. Robert Crawford, a research fellow at King’s College in London, reckons that around 550,000 South Africans live in Britain alone. Not all of South Africa’s émigrés are white: skilled blacks from South Africa can be found in jobs and places as various as banking in New York and nursing in the Persian Gulf. But most are white—and thanks to the legacy of apartheid the remaining whites, though only about 9% of the population, are still South Africa’s richest and best-trained people.

Talk about “white flight” does not go down well. Officials are quick to claim that there is nothing white about it. A recent survey by FutureFact, a polling organisation, found that the desire to emigrate is pretty even across races: last year, 42% of Coloured (mixed-race) South Africans, 38% of blacks and 30% of those of Indian descent were thinking of leaving, compared with 41% of whites. This is a big leap from 2000, when the numbers were 12%, 18%, 26% and 22% respectively. But it is the whites, by and large, who have the money, skills, contacts and sometimes passports they need to start a life outside—and who leave the bigger skills and tax gap behind.

Another line loyalists take is that South Africa is no different from elsewhere: in a global economy, skills are portable. “One benefit of our new democracy is that we are well integrated in the community of nations, so now more opportunities are accessible to our people,” Kgalema Motlanthe, now South Africa’s president, told The Economist. And to some extent it is true that the doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants and engineers who leave are being pulled by bigger salaries, not pushed by despair. But this is not the whole story. Nick Holland, chief executive of Gold Fields, a mining company, says that in his firm it is far commoner for skilled whites to leave than their black and Indian counterparts. “We mustn’t stick our heads in the sand,” he says. “White flight is a reality.”

Another claim is that a lot of leavers return. Martine Schaffer, a Durbanite who returned to South Africa herself in 2003 after 14 years in London, now runs the “Homecoming Revolution”, an outfit created with help from the First National Bank to tempt lost sheep back to the fold. And, yes, a significant number of émigrés do come home, seduced by memories of the easeful poolside life under the jacaranda trees, excited by work opportunities or keen—perhaps after having children themselves—to reunite with parents who stayed behind.

In some cases, idealism remains a draw. Whites who left in previous decades because they were repelled by apartheid, or who expected apartheid to end in a bloodbath, can find much to admire. Whites build tall walls around their houses and pay guards to patrol their neighbourhoods; they consider some downtown areas too dangerous to visit. But on university campuses and in the bright suburban shopping malls it is still thrilling to see blacks and whites mingling in a relaxed way that was unimaginable under apartheid.

So South Africa certainly has its white boosters. Michael Katz, chairman of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, a law firm in Johannesburg, hands over a book with the title “Don’t Panic!”, a collection of heartwarming reflections by disparate South Africans on why there is, even now, no better place than home. Mr Katz ticks off the pluses as he sees them: minimal racial tension (a third of his own firm’s 350 professionals are black); a model constitution that entrenches the separation of powers and is “revered” by the people; a free press and free judiciary; a healthy Parliament; a vibrant civil society; good infrastructure and a banking system untouched by the global credit crunch. The “one major negative” Mr Katz concedes is violent crime. If only this could be brought under control, he says, the leavers would return.

But would they? Violent crime is undoubtedly the biggest single driver of emigration, the one factor cited by all races and across all professions when people are asked why they want to go. Police figures put the murder rate in 2007-08 at more than 38 per 100,000 and rape at more than 75 per 100,000. This marks a big fall over the past several years, but is still astronomical by international standards (the murder rate was 5.6 per 100,000 in the United States last year). It has reached the point where most people say they have either been victims of violent crime themselves or know friends or relatives who have been victims. Typically, it is a break-in, carjacking, robbery or murder close to home that clinches a family’s long mulled-over decision to leave.

All the same, crime is far from being the only cause of white disenchantment. Some say that 2008 brought a “perfect storm”. A sequence of political and economic blows this year have buffeted people’s hope. Added together they provide reason to doubt whether the virtues ticked off by the exuberant Mr Katz—a model constitution, separation of powers, good infrastructure and so on—are quite so solid.

Good infrastructure? At the beginning of the year South Africa’s lights started to go out, plunging the thrumming shopping malls and luxury homes into darkness and stopping work in the gold and diamond mines. This entirely avoidable calamity was caused by a distracting debate about the role of the private sector in electricity supply. Eskom, the state-owned utility in which many experienced white managers had been too quickly pushed aside, is now investing again in new plant under a new chairman, Bobby Godsell, a veteran mining executive. But for the time being power will remain in short supply and rationing and blackouts will continue.

As for that model constitution and the separation of powers, Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, was moved this week to describe the sordid battle between Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, the party, government, prosecuting authority and courts as suggestive of a “banana republic”. As well as being appalled by events at home this past year, whites have watched Robert Mugabe’s pauperisation of neighbouring Zimbabwe and wonder whether South Africa will be next to descend into the same spiral.

Besides, fear of crime cannot be separated from the other factors that make South Africans consider emigration. People who do not feel safe in their homes lose their faith in government. John Perlman, who worked for the SABC, the state broadcaster, before resigning in a quarrel over political interference, does not believe that most people leave because they are afraid. “I think they leave when they lose heart,” he says. One white entrepreneur about to leave for New York says that it was not being held up twice at gunpoint that upset him most: it was the lack of interest the police showed afterwards. Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, claims that policing has been devastated by cronyism and that the entire criminal-justice system is dysfunctional. The head of the police, Jackie Selebi, is on leave pending a corruption investigation.

How much does the outward flow of whites matter? South Africa can ill afford the loss of its best-trained people. Iraj Abedian, an economist and chief executive of Pan-African Capital Holdings, says a pitiful shortage of skills is one of the main constraints on economic growth. He concedes that the ANC has pushed hard to give every eligible child a place in school, but argues that a “politically correct” focus on expanding access has come at the expense of quality. With virtually no state schools providing adequate teaching in science or maths, he says, the country has added to its vast problem of unemployment (every other 18-24-year-old is out of work) a no less vast problem of unemployability.

On Mr Abedian’s reckoning, about half a million posts are vacant in government service alone because too few South Africans have the skills these jobs demand. Not a single department, he says, has its full complement of professionals. Local municipalities and public hospitals are also desperately short of trained people. Dentists are “as scarce as chicken’s teeth” and young doctors demoralised by the low standards of hospital administration. Last May Azar Jammine, an independent economist, told a Johannesburg conference on the growing skills shortage that more than 25,000 teachers were leaving the profession every year and only 7,000 entering.

A blinkered immigration policy makes things worse. Nobody has a clue how many millions of unskilled Africans cross into South Africa illegally. But skilled job applicants who try to come in legally are obstructed by a barricade of regulations. Mr Abedian says that the ANC used to think that relying on foreigners would discourage local institutions from training their own people. Now at least the government earmarks sectors where skills are in short supply and for which immigration procedures are supposed to be eased. In April, however, an internal report by the Department of Home Affairs showed that fewer than 1,200 foreigners had obtained permits under this scheme, from a list of more than 35,000 critical jobs.

In fairness, South Africa has been through far worse times before. Whites streamed out during the township riots of the 1980s. It is far from clear how much of the present dinner-table talk about leaving ends with a family packing its bags. Alan Seccombe, a tax expert at PWC in Johannesburg, says that many affluent whites have moved money offshore and prepared their escape routes, but that his firm’s emigration practice is doing less business today than it did in 1995.

Perspective is necessary in politics, too. Raenette Taljaard, previously an opposition member of Parliament and now director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, a think-tank, says that events this past year have raised profound concerns about the rule of law and the durability of the constitution. But Allister Sparks, the author of several histories of South Africa (and a former writer for The Economist), maintains that the ANC has done as well as anyone had a right to expect after apartheid’s destructive legacy. Some whites even express enthusiasm about the advent of Mr Zuma. How many other African liberation movements, they ask, have been democratic enough to vote out an underperforming leader, as the ANC has Mr Mbeki?

For the average white person, South Africa continues to offer a quality of life hard to find elsewhere. And there are other compensations. Mr Brink says in the article on the murder of his nephew that people who ask when he will be emigrating are perplexed to hear that he intends to stay. There is, he says, an “urgency and immediacy” about life in South Africa that lends it a sense of involvement and relevance he cannot imagine finding elsewhere.

All the same, he is staying on bereft of some former illusions.

The myopia and greed of the country’s new regime of rats have eroded my faith in the specific future I had once believed in. I do not foresee, today, any significant decrease in crime and violence in South Africa; I have serious doubts that our rulers can even guarantee a safe and successful soccer World Cup in 2010; I do not believe that the levels of corruption and nepotism and racketeering and incompetence and injustice and unacceptable practices of “affirmative action” in the country will decrease in the near future.

The famous novelist will stay. Many other whites are making plans to leave, and will be taking their precious skills with them.