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· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa ·

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Dramatic Challenges
Curtain up on a new Millennium
and there is high drama in Southern Africa

The curtain rose on a new millennium in Southern Africa and the opening scene has done justice to its tradition of high drama. From the fires in the Cape Peninsula to the floods in Mozambique, farm invasions in Zimbabwe to cricket corruption and scientific and racial debate in SA, it has been a brisk first quarter in this part of the world. It is extraordinary how Southern Africa consistently does justice to such words as outrageous, disastrous, shocking and intense.

Let us begin locally, here in Cape Town. With temperatures soaring in late January to a record 41.3c. and winds gusting to 130 km/h, fires simultaneously broke out in the Winelands, on the West Coast, above Constantia and on the Peninsula near Simon's Town and Scarborough. Towering over houses, great heights of flame swept over the hills and onto farms and towns. Nine thousand hectares of land (20,000+ acres) were burned in the South Peninsula alone, but only eight houses destroyed - a testimony to the volunteers, fire fighters and helicopter crews who kept the blazes at bay. The destruction provides an opportunity for the government to rid the cape of hot-burning invasive plants and restore the indigenous vegetation.

In the sharpest of contrasts, eastern South Africa, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and especially Mozambique were struck by a terrifying succession of catastrophic tropical storms led by Cyclone Eline. Winds exceeding 200 km/h and weeks of relentless rain drove people to the uppermost branches of trees as floods rose in walls of water across vast areas of the country. Over a million people were made homeless and entire towns disappeared under water. Starvation and, ironically, thirst set in. South Africa responded commendably to the disaster in Mozambique - plucking people from rooftops and trees and airlifting over ten thousand people to safety. The international community also provided support - but were criticised for their slow response.

This flood disaster in Mozambique was particularly poignant. Since democratic elections in 1994 (after 30 years of civil war) there were signs of impressive economic growth - lifting Mozambique off the bottom rung of world poverty. Now displaced land mines, national destruction and the spread of disease have set the country back years. Britain has cancelled Mozambique's debt but much more support will be needed in the years ahead.

Now enter a character called Robert Mugabe. The President of Zimbabwe (77) - is a familiar actor in the region. He took over power after the end of white rule in 1979 - he had been a resistance fighter in the bush war. Taking a leaf out of Lenin's book he made himself President and Secretary General of his party, and then through campaigns of terrror, patronage and manipulation has so blurred the division of state and personal power as to turn the nation into his fiefdom.

Necessarily, such an inflated leader has sucked the life out of the economy and embittered civil society. Early this year the economy faltered, just as a referendum was held to further increase Presidential power. Amid drastic fuel shortages and 60% inflation the country voted 'no' to further constitutional change. With parliamentary elections now due, Mugabe found his political power waning. He has desperately tried to resurrect the scenes of his glory days - the liberation struggle - with violent rhetoric against Britain and whites. All of a sudden 'war veterans' began to occupy white owned farms to confiscate them for 're-distribution to the people'. The courts ordered the squatters off the land but the President opposed the judgment and police remained inactive. The situation remains tense and lawless, under the cover of which opposition supporters are being intimidated. No doubt Mugabe will try to avoid holding an election until the opposition is broken and he has whipped up some support.

In South Africa the dramas have been moral and cerebral. The Human Right's Commission - a statutory body led by intellectual Barney Pityana - launched an enquiry into 'subliminal racism' in the media. Editors were subpoened and the media responded with protests of a 'thought police' at work. Black editors lined up to criticse their white colleagues, and the editors most closely grilled were those who have been critical of the ANC government . The episode was more revealing of perceptions and suspicions among the new black elite, and mixed attitudes to press freedom, than any evidence of 'subliminal racism' in the press.

Meanwhile President Mbeki has received international criticism by consulting 'dissident' AIDS activists (who doubt a link between HIV and AIDS, and are opposed to anti-viral drugs). The debate has further muddled South Africa's policy on AIDS and continues the unfortunate trend of controversy that has bedevilled the country's response to the disease (see Story-Letters on AIDs). Meantime, the UN has estimated SA's HIV infection rate to be 1,500 people per day, with over 10% of the population already infected.

But just when you thought there had been enough moral drama, enter long-time national cricket captain Hansie Cronje. You will be aware that Sport takes on religious proportions in South Africa. Cronje - a conservative Afrikaner and publicly religious man - had represented a highly competitive but straightforward and decent sportsmanship that everyone admired and trusted. A scandal brewed in India that he had accepted money from bookmakers. After repeated denials he called the authorities at 3am one morning to admit that he had. The revelation caused an enormous stir - the fall from grace of a trusted public figure.

Southern Africa is no soap opera - even if some of the characters are melodramatic. This is an unfolding high drama that is often intense but never fails to challenge morally and intellectually.


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