Letters to the Editor: September 30

Minister of hot air
Our minister of international relations and co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, communicates blandly from my TV screen most nights to inform me that she is the incoming president of COP17 (Conference of the Parties—the climate-change conference to be held in Durban in December).

In a deadpan voice she expounds the aims of COP17: to achieve credible, inclusive and fair outcomes to the conference.

I should be delighted that the government is finally beginning to engage with one of the greatest crises that the human species has ever faced. Perhaps the politicians will consider steering away from the cliff edge while we sit hopelessly trapped in the back seats, well strapped in.

There isn’t a lot of time left to change direction. The year 2050 is mentioned frequently as the tipping point. If we don’t get our act together and keep global temperature increase below 20°C, runaway, uncontrollable climate change is likely. Already global temperatures have increased in the past few decades by 0.6°C, and the temperatures just keep going up.

The year 2050 is not so far away—many of our children and grandchildren will have to face it.

I wonder why I am not convinced by this leader, Nkoana-Mashabane, why I am of so little faith, why I am so little inclined to follow her call to a brighter, cooler future?

This is the same minister who forfeited the first-class air tickets from Oslo, Norway, to Sofia, Bulgaria, for herself and her entourage. No, she wasn’t having issues of principle about the environmental damage caused by flying, something that concerns many people around the globe. She simply didn’t want her handbag x-rayed.

She kicked up a fuss about diplomatic immunity, which in Norway applies only to royalty and heads of state, and missed her flight. But all was not lost for the feisty minister, who promptly hired a private jet.

She got to her appointment three hours late and the speech about raising awareness of international affairs was delivered by an assistant.

Nkoana-Mashabane used taxpayer’s money to do this—an additional R235 343—but we are so used to that sort of thing that only Helen Zille bothered to kick up a fuss.

Assuming the inner circle of Nkoana-Mashabane’s entourage consisted of five people, their wasted seats on the commercial flight added about 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—about the same amount of CO² produced by the average Indian citizen in a year.

Nkoana-Mashabane then compounded this with the massive addition of about 13 tonnes of CO² emitted by the private chartered jet over the 2 096 kilometres trip.

Nkoana-Mashabane’s actions were fiercely defended by her department, which said it was a matter of principle that she should stand her ground. Her dignity remains unimpaired, in spite of a certain amount of heated argument, and anyway, who would notice all that CO²? It’s an invisible gas, after all.

So why do I have so little hope that the minister or the South African government has the slightest concern about what happens at COP17 in Durban?—Morag Peden, Pietermaritzburg

Refreshing football analysis a treat to read
It was really refreshing to read Percy Zvomuya’s piece on the wealthy elite of European football—and on his own team, Arsenal, somewhat fallen from grace of late (”Top teams mop up the market”, September 23).

One-time Liverpool manager Bill Shankley once said that football was a matter more serious than life or death. I loved Zvomuya’s reference to the doyen of Marxist literary and cultural analysis, Fredric Jameson, in characterising the obvious money malaise affecting the game and turning it into an arena dominated by an elite of rich teams that is concentrated in a few cities and now includes both the Manchester clubs (the red sort-of-aristocrats and the sky-blue nouveaux riches).

Something is clearly being lost from the game with the rampant commercialism and corporatism we are now witnessing. And it is likely to continue until the logic works itself out to its absurd, disastrous conclusion.

It was a surprise to read a piece on British and European football that I had not read a few days before on the Guardian‘s website. And Zvomuya makes a lot of sense (notice, I resist adding here “as an Arsenal fan”), yet I don’t think I can buy into his argument that high-scoring, thumping victories are not good for the game.

First, Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford would have been experienced by United fans as a kind of payback for past injuries: for its two Cup Final defeats and for the season in which Anders Limpar scored the premiership-winning goal at Old Trafford, plus the season when Lord Ferg was attacked in the player’s tunnel by Arsene Wenger’s pizza-wielding scions, as well as Martin Keown’s baiting of Ruud van Nistelrooy when he missed a last-second penalty.

From a United perspective, 8-2 just about did it, a seriously weakened Arsenal team notwithstanding. Football as, among other things, surrogate warfare is about deep-seated historical grievance, about the possibility of sudden overwhelming justice and the unexpected revelation of total superiority.

Too many big wins by the big teams against small fry doomed to get relatively smaller every year may eventually kill the game. But when it comes to the 8-2 United win at Old Trafford a few weeks ago, I would have given my eye teeth to be there.—Damian Garside, Mafikeng

Palestine as state is a step in the right direction
Whether a state or not, Palestine is a nation of people with a common heritage, history and culture (”Palestinians need an audience for their story”, September 23). At the core of the Palestinian bid for statehood are the unified Palestinians worldwide. Will the recognition of statehood in the United Nations actually make a difference in the everyday lives of Palestinians living under occupation, or for the refugees who are not allowed to return to their homeland?

Questions arise. What makes a state? Who decides when a state is a state? There is not a clear-cut definition. The international community, or those with the most power in the UN, decide when a state is a state. Recognising Palestine as the world’s 194th state could have important long-term consequences for Palestine’s position internationally and its relations with Israel.

One thing remains sure: recognising Palestine as an actual state could be a step in the right direction. There are numerous UN resolutions that outline Palestine’s right to self-determination and sovereignty. There are no Bantus in Palestine, so why create bantustans?—NJ Semudi, Soweto

M&G‘s source had score to settle
Your article “‘Muggers & Robbers’?” (Business, September 9) is not only defamatory but unfair. The allegations in it have not been property investigated by the M&G.

I now know that the anonymous letter to which you refer was written by a disgruntled employee of Murray & Roberts with an axe to grind. He has since resigned. The implication that Roger Rees and I are responsible for the loss of almost R2-billion is incorrect and misleading. The losses reported have been recognised in prudent accounting that takes into account the non-payment of contractual claims, notwithstanding that such claims are being pursued.

The losses were incurred in subsidiary companies and joint ventures with some of the largest local and international civil-engineering contractors. Other than the fact that the chief executive takes ultimate responsibility, to imply that Rees and I are directly responsible for the operating losses betrays a complete lack of understanding of the operation of a large group.

The majority of the provisions in respect of collusion relate to Concor Limited and took place during the period prior to and at the time of the acquisition of Concor Limited by Murray & Roberts. Throughout my business career I have always opposed collusive practices and did everything possible to ensure that they did not take place and were eradicated from the Murray & Roberts Group.

During the years I was the chief executive of Murray & Roberts, the salary paid to me was well within the usual norms. I also exercised share options at various times (which you incorrectly classified as “pay”) but mostly converted these back into Murray & Roberts shares.

As with all shareholders, I too suffered a loss in value as a result of the decline in the company’s share price.

You have not seen fit in your article to refer to the allegations of collusion made against other construction companies that have, in fact, paid large fines. Murray & Roberts is not “wrecked”, as the M&G states. Despite its current difficulties the company grew in value by more than 900% under my tenure as chief executive.—Brian Bruce, Bedfordview

I never said that
To be misquoted is irritating, but it happens so often, especially in blogs, that it is wisest to ignore it. But to be attacked in your letters column on the basis of a misquotation exacerbates the itch to the point where it has to be scratched (”Keep reading Dickens”, September 23).

The original misquotation, in an account of the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival, came from the following conflation of a fairly long, complex discussion of why young people no longer read: “Ansell suggested that such fiction could instil a sense of ‘wonder and hope’ in young readers because it explored a world of endless possibilities. She called on local publishers to promote the genre because ‘children need to stop reading Charles Dickens’” (//worldsf.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/south-african-sff-panel/).

Except that I never said it. Dickens was mentioned in the panel response to that question by, my notes show, Lauren Beukes. She never said it either. What she said—and I wholeheartedly agreed—was that one key reason why kids no longer read was that books were too expensive. She called for the removal of punitive sales taxes on books. And she added that an additional reason might be that much of what schools insist children read lacks any relevance to, or resonance with, their lives. She suggested that rather than compelling children to read Dickens, educators should seek well-written contemporary fiction to which youngsters could relate.

Neither of us, I’m sure, would ever urge anyone to stop reading anything. As writers we avoid giving advice that cuts our own throats. Opening even the trashiest comic, romance or thriller is infinitely preferable to living a life without books. So maybe, letter writer Dewald Steyn, you really should come to next year’s festival, rather than trusting second-hand online narratives. We look forward to meeting you.—Gwen Ansell, Johannesburg

Gupta protests too much
The letter from Atul Gupta, whose family owns The New Age, in last week’s newspaper (September 23) was rich, especially the final sentence in which he accuses the M&G of “poor journalism paraded as newsworthy and credible”.

It brought to mind an incident a few weeks ago at my local newsagent. While waiting in line to pay I noticed the person ahead of me (a black woman) had a copy of the M&G and jokingly asked why she did not also take a copy of The New Age for a contrasting opinion at about one-tenth of the cost. She smiled and said: “I already have toilet paper; I’m looking for something to read.”

That, Mr Gupta, is what a discerning citizenry thinks of your publication.—Darryl van Blerk, Cape Town

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