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Letters to the Editor: November 25

Staff Reporter

M&G readers weigh in on Mac Maharaj, the whiteness debate, our iPad edition and more.

Bottled water has its place
The main flaw in Jeff Rudin’s reasoning in “Put a cap on capitalism” (November 11) is putting bottled water and tap water in the same “product” category. Bottled water in South Africa is regulated by the department of health as a food and is offered as a healthy beverage alternative, and therefore competes against other beverages for share of throat—tap water is not and does not.

In addition, it is unfortunate that the article contained many inaccuracies and generalisations about South Africa’s bottled water industry, thereby making it an entirely irrational example to illustrate his point. For clarity’s sake, I would like to mention just three instances.

The local bottled water industry is not as large a consumer of plastic as Rudin would have readers believe. Bottled water is bottled in containers made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin, a by-product from oil manufacture, and not the primary product as Rudin suggests when he says it “takes 17-billion barrels of oil to produce the plastic bottles”. And, of the 15-million tonnes of PET resin made globally every year, about 150 000 tonnes (1%) is used in South Africa. Of this 150 000 tonnes, only 6 000 tonnes (4%) are used by the local bottled water industry. The remaining 96% is used to bottle other beverages and other products, including food.

Rudin advises critical assessment of each product and its employment, resource depletion, social and other environmental impacts. Would he rather use the bottled water industry’s total annual water usage—that currently contributes R3.5-billion to our economy, directly employs 1 800 people and has the lowest environmental impact of all beverages—to irrigate one-and-a-half 18-hole golf courses? Or to water one 45-hectare export-fruit farm?

In South Africa, it takes only 1.7 litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water. By contrast, “manufacturing” 1kg of beef takes 16 000 litres of water and 1kg of maize takes 900 litres. Therefore, the industry is not nearly as large a consumer of water as Rudin claims.

In addition, members of the South African National Bottled Water Association use sustainable water sources and work to standards that ensure their products have a smaller carbon footprint and a smaller water footprint than any other bottled beverage. International values are not relevant because the South African bottled water industry is tiny compared to those making other beverages—1.4% of total beverage volumes. As a country, we certainly import and export much more fresh produce, wine and other consumer items than the three million litres of bottled water imports but, yes, it would be better to support local bottlers.

About 38% of PET bottles in South Africa are recycled. Importantly, of the bottles not recycled, only 1.4% are bottled water bottles—the remaining 98.6% are from other beverages. Rudin should rather draw your readers’ attention to the “overall rate of all types of plastics recycling of only 13%”.

Given these inaccuracies, and there are more, it was grossly misleading to single out the bottled water industry as Rudin did. Surely the call should be for behaviour change, and not a ban or tax on an industry that has made great strides in environmental stewardship over the past years?—Charlotte Metcalf, technical manager, South African National Bottled Water Association


Rudin’s article makes good sense and is essential reading for leaders in all spheres of life. We need to remind ourselves of the meaning of the word “enough” and to have what we need rather than having everything we want. This is particularly relevant in the context of the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, who are deprived of ever having enough.—Gordon Oliver, Cape Town


Author’s perception of desert is incorrect
Oh, for the innocence that preceded Muammar Gaddafi’s AK-47s and Toyota Land Cruisers with their machine guns—the sun compass on the dashboard of the Land Rover as archaic as an astrolabe.

Yes, the French group Mission Berliet was there before us. We could see their 10-year-old tracks. Send the Land Rovers back with their broken half-shafts. The camels are much more reliable and Zawi, our Tuareg guide, has a better sense of where we are without any compass.

Samira Negrouche (“Beyond borders”, The Second African Women Writers’ Symposium supplement, November 18) is wrong. She is a “townie”. Desert peoples are seldom lost, whether in the snowy wastes of the Arctic or the sands of the Sahara. Those who know the desert know it is “navigable”, both physically and metaphorically. The holy fathers looked to the desert for solace, calm and reflection—all badly scarred by French nuclear testing, oil exploration and today’s inhumane kidnappers.

Negrouche writes about “space”, but what she needs to do is think of “landscape”. Landscape is memory. It is the terrain of the mind, passed on from generation to generation. Among nomads it encompasses “the track”, the connections through which we build our social world. The desert has tracks and in the Sahara it is filled with other referents: rock art, ancient graves and, of course, the life-giving water points and acacia trees for the camels.

Have you ever been truly alone? On foot, with the water in your bottle finished, not knowing where your companions might be, in the middle of a vast expanse and the nearest habitation is perhaps 1 000 kilometres away in every direction?

We, the last generation who walked in the footsteps of people thousands of years ago, with the chance to breathe the limitless horizons, to know and appreciate isolation and purity, were truly fortunate. There are no such places left in today’s world of GPS and satellite telephone links.—Andrew B Smith, department of archaeology, University of Cape Town


Powa volunteer was misquoted
We are concerned about statements attributed to our organisation, People Opposing Women Abuse, in the article “Men take a battering too” (November 4). The writer quotes Maki Tsotetsi, calling her “an assistant legal adviser at Powa”. She is, in fact, a volunteer and she tells us that she told your journalist this.

Tsotetsi is quoted as saying Powa has something in common with a new men’s organisation—that “they want to end abuse, no matter who the victims and perpetrators are”. Tsotetsi says this comment was taken out of context because she told your journalist that she had no knowledge of the other organisation.

The piece quotes Tsotetsi as saying: “As Powa, we are not saying that women are always right. We want relationships and marriages to work.” Tsotetsi denies articulating such a statement.

Powa is a feminist organisation focused on creating a safe society that does not tolerate violence against women. The organisation does not trivialise the abuse of women, as implied in the article.—Nhlanhla Mokwena, executive director, People Opposing Women Abuse


New Big Mac now made with secret recipe
Mac Maharaj’s decision to go to court to prevent the Mail & Guardian from publishing his interview with the Scorpions (”A buried trail of lies”, November 18) answers many questions that have been bothering me since he became the oldest spokesperson of a government in a modern democracy. At 76, having been a minister in the Nelson Mandela Cabinet, and having retired twice, he has come back to be President Jacob Zuma’s spin doctor. I am sure he is even older than Patrick Craven of Cosatu.

Decisions on the arms deal and Oilgate scandals were taken by Zuma without the Cabinet or the ANC national executive. The ANC must prevent Maharaj from doing what youth league leader Julius Malema and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula tried to do—censoring the media. The nation will ask: what does Maharaj want to hide?—Lancelot Phakamani Sikhonde, Secunda

You saw nothing. It was all a Maharaj.—gareth_danger (on Twitter)

The gagging of @mailandguardian is going to make Maharaj’s story circulate even further and receive more public attention. Played.—NixDodd (on Twitter)

McDonald’s have launched a new burger, the “Big Mac Maharaj”. The ingredients of the burger will not be revealed.—omerwastaken (on Twitter)

Maharaj threatened to take the M&G to court. No court or government department precluded the M&G from publishing. By its own admission, it was its lawyers that censored them. In my view, Nic [Dawes] and Co are seeking publicity on something they knew was illegally obtained. Everyone acts as if some court or government department prevented them from publishing. If they felt they did nothing wrong, they should have published.—Len Anderson (on mg.co.za)

I am almost wetting my broekies waiting to find out how this whole arms deal saga unfolds. There is so much fruit to be picked here, from the apartheid government slush fund inheritance to wherever it goes.—Myth Os (on mg.co.za)

Things are hotting up. As pointed out by Martin Welz, editor of Noseweek, Maharaj’s action, and the timing of his action, are ironically significant in our fight against the despicable [Protection of State Information] Bill in its present form. All informed people with any interest in the Bill and in current affairs will be reflecting on the utterly excessive or draconian punishments written into the Bill to block citizens from blowing the whistle on corrupt politicians and civil servants—just as Maharaj, here, abuses the National Prosecuting Authority Act that evidently includes equally oppressive clauses.—Shaman sans Frontiers (on mg.co.za)


What is blackness?
As a white South African living abroad, I was surprised to see that the subject of “whiteness” had recently sprung to life in the M&G. Having followed it for some months, I would like to add an “outside” perspective.

When I first migrated to Britain in the early 1990s, the issue of what it meant to be a white South African was a hot topic and I was frequently confronted with hostile questions. As the 1990s wore on and apartheid became history, interest in “whiteness” began to fade. Foreigners, and especially those in business, were more concerned about the future of South Africa.

On trips home I noticed that black South Africans were not interested in whites’ opinions and certainly not in “whiteness”. Critical comments by whites were at best perceived as well-intentioned lectures, at worst as racist diatribes, and whites’ complaints about hardships were seen as laughable. My impression is that this is even more so today.

The interest in “whiteness” thus suggests to me that white South Africans may be waking up to what it means to be white in South Africa. Given the emotional reaction to Samantha Vice’s essay, I’m not sure they have come to terms yet with being just another minority, albeit a predominantly rich one.

The closest parallel I can think of is the Chinese in Southeast Asia. They punch well above their weight economically and are resented for that, but politically they are marginal (especially in Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia). Thus they tend to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of attracting unwanted attention.

As someone who can look at South Africa from both inside and out, I feel the “whiteness” debate misses the most important question confronting the country and perhaps sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. This is what it means to be a black South African. This used to be an easy question to answer. Before 1994, the answer was “oppressed”; after 1994, for a time, it was “free”. What is the answer now?—JB Hughes, author of The Glass Tower, Switzerland


Thanks for the iPad
What a relief that one of our mainstream newspapers has launched a proper iPad application! Until now we could only be embarrassed by the poor quality of the applications that our South African news agencies have put out there.

You have shown that South Africans are, in fact, capable of producing world-class digital content—if they bother to try. I sincerely hope that other publishers will follow your example, but you have made an M&G loyalist out of me. Thank you!—Casper de Vries

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