A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Why I think South Africa is on track

In addition to my earlier observations on the promising future of South Africa, I'd like to come with a very hands-on report from the dance floor of Kievits Kroon and add furher observations, which make me conclude that South Africa is on track.

1. Races happily mix! And respect each other!

The dance floor at Kievits Kroon was a happy place yesterday evening. Everyone enjoyed themselves. So did I! Friendly people. And, I could see little if any animosity. I'm not saying there isn't any. But what I'm saying is that it's rapidly decreasing, as I saw plenty of it in 1993. A good symbol of the mutual respect is that the all-white girl band played Gimme Hope Jo'anna, the anti-apartheid reggae hit banned in South Africa when it was released in the 1980s. And it seemed a natural, painless, everyday kind of thing for both the band and the audience. I felt that I was the only one paying any attention to it.

2. Sub-Saharan Africa experiences explosive growth!

Of all Sun territories, Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be growing the fastest. That gives confidence, self respect, and resources for sustaining peace.

3. People have learned to live with crime

It isn't as if crime would have stopped to exist. Yes, there's much less of it than before. But I found it telling that I was one of the few who found the entry of the acting group (with the purpose of showing how Sun Microsystems has green values when it comes to hardware and power consumption) was too violent. Myself, I jumped at the very authentic "Freeze!" with a mockup hand gun. Patricia, the South African host of the event, told me "Oh, we're seasoned". But herself, she jumped when the (white) actor loudly screamed "Harry! It's Harry! Barry is my brother!", an innocent line which was part of the plot and didn't make me raise an eyebrow.

4. Foreigners get a needlessly negative picture of South Africa

As we know from other circumstances, the press tends to prefer negative news over positive ones. And foreigners are also more exposed to emigrated South-Africans, than those who haven't emigrated. Of course, émigré white South Africans have a natural tendency to rationalise why they emigrated, and hence portray the crime situation in South Africa a bit too negatively. That's natural, and I would do the same in their shoes.

5. White émigré South Africans are being encouraged to move back, by all South Africans

As said, I see more respect between races. This shows also in programmes to get educated white South Africans to move back to South Africa. And allegedly, these programmes have traction.

6. Even white South Africans are well seen in the rest of Africa

With the end of apartheid making it possible for South Africans to travel abroad on the rest of the African continent, they travel all over the place. And they tell me they're being welcomed most everywhere, something that also goes for white South Africans. That's a bit of a difference to the times when South African Airlines had to fly over the Atlantic instead of flying over Africa, just to avoid the risk of being shot down.

7. Afrikaans is alive and well

Although the position of Afrikaans is "diluted" through the nine new official languages of South Africa, the language is alive and well -- in the IT industry, in ads, in street signs, in music (see below for the Afrikaans band Fokofpolisiekar but don't translate the band name literally).

8. Re-naming of places and streets is limited

Jan Smuts may have lost his airport to Oliver Tambo, but he got to keep his avenue. Transvaal no longer exists as an province and instead, Johannesburg now is in Gauteng (pronounced "how teng", just like the Botswanan capital Gaborone is pronounced Habbo-raw-née). Still, the vast majority of names continue as-is.

All in all, South Africa seems quite a self-confident country, with shrinking crime rates, and a relaxed attitude between races. Before my trip, I thought crime would be the limiting factor for whether my football-addicted son and I would go to see the World Championships in 2010. Now, I'm more worried about traffic, travel cost, and whether the championship coincides with any school holidays. And that's much more healthy and normal!

South Africa: There's hope!

Not everything is going the wrong way on our planet. There are things that are changing for the better! And one of them is South Africa. I see a lot of well-founded hope around me. The hope is related to less crime, less racial tension, and more economic growth. I share the positive vibes and think they're founded in reality.

I'm in South Africa for the yearly Sun partner event in "Sub-Saharan Africa" or SSA for short. SSA is one of the fastest-growing regions within what is known as "Emerging Markets", which in itself grows faster than Europe, North America or Asia Pacific. And partners are extremely important, as Sun uses solely indirect sales in the region.

My role was to share some thoughts on Open Source in general and MySQL in particular, with an audience of about 150 Sun partners and employees in Sub-Saharan Africa. That area is economically dominated by South Africa itself, but other countries, such as Nigeria, has even higher growth.

For a European like myself, it was an exotic event. The partner award ceremony featured nominees and winners from countries like Botswana, Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire. And I spoke to partners with activities in Mauritius, Ghana, and Namibia.

Those countries sound exotic and exciting to me, but not all of them are totally unfamiliar to me. I came to South Africa over New Year 1992-93, visiting Joburg, Durban, Umhlanga Rocks, Cape Town, the Krüger National Park, Pilanesberg, Sun City and Pretoria. My wife and I got so inspired that we decided to spend our honeymoon 1993 in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

And that's why I didn't have all that high expectations for my visit now, fifteen years later. Already in 1993, Zimbabwe was a "has-been" country. Everybody we met talked about things having been "so much better" under Ian Smith, including -- most surprisingly -- our black taxi driver in Harare.

And now, like the rest of us, I had read stories in the press about South Africa risking to become the next Zimbabwe. Which is why I've asked several people here whether they expect similar things to happen in South Africa as in Zimbabwe, but with a time delay of 15-20 years.

Usually, the answer started with an acknowledgement of the horribleness of such a scenario. But then the people I spoke with went on giving me reasons why it won't happen, and it doesn't sound like mere wishful thinking ("oh, the stock market won't collapse").

Encouraged by the openness of everyone I talked to ("oh yes, please go ahead, I'd love to read your non-MySQL related blog on South Africa!"), I wrote a short summary of what I see as

The Top Ten Reasons Why South Africa isn't the next Zimbabwe

1. There was a long tradition of democracy prior to the end of apartheid. The National Party (you remember names like F.W. de Klerk and P.W. Botha) was the biggest party under apartheid, but it wasn't the only one. And while elections were racially limited, in other respects they were true elections. There was real democracy in the white subset of South Africa. And that is much closer to full democracy than the imperial rule in Rhodesia ever was.

2. The racial situation is not black and white. There are plenty of Indians and coloureds. There are moslems and hindus. Halal food (food permissible according to Islamic law) is being served without a blink, when needed. When I was there, the Hindu holiday of Diwali impacted our business appointments, which seemed a natural thing for the non-Hindus. And having a more diverse racial mix most certainly discourages an oversimplified polarisation.

3. An allegedly "phenomenal" constitution. "It's much better than yours, no matter whether Finland, Sweden, the US, you name it". People seemed very proud of what the ANC and the National Party wrote up, during the negotiations that ended apartheid. They allegedly got their Montesquieu right (separation of executive, legislative and judicial administrative powers)

4. Nobody even attempting at changing the constitution. With over 2/3 majority, a change could have been possible for the ANC. Wisely, they haven't gone down that path.

5. Politics becoming less aligned with race and tribes. There is a green party with a green agenda, unrelated to race. The ANC has white supporters. There are no significant parties appealing to one tribe only.

6. Silly politicians being fired. AIDS is now, even according to the new South African minister of health, caused by HIV and not cured by garlic but prevented by proactively using condoms.

7. Security improving. On a customer visit today, we walked through central Johannesburg. That was in an area where my local host wouldn't have walked 3-4 years ago.

8. The 2010 FIFA World Cup. The eyes of the world will be on South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, and not just those of football enthusiasts. There was a huge positive impact in Germany 2006, both on the national identity and on the external perception of it. I think we'll see something similar in 2010.

9. The large economic footprint of South Africa. It's huge. MySQL downloads in South Africa outnumber those of downloads elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa by a factor of three.

10. Innovative public policy, at least in Open Source. Read Aslam Raffee's blog. Open Source is being mandated by the government. That means South Africa is at the forefront in innovating public policy.

Personally, I could sense a mere fraction of the racial tension of my previous visit in 1993. On the dance floor at the Sun partner venue of Kievits Kroon, everyone mixed with everyone. I could see mutual respect.

Hey, why not invest in Africa? It'll be the next boom market (and likely, one of the only ones in the current climate).

The Government Wants You To Use A Condom

I never thought I would blog about condoms. Then again, I also never thought I would pop into a condom dispenser in the toilet room of a customer (yes, a conservative one, in the finance industry -- not a social networking website for 20-year-olds).

But that's what I did today. See above (the package) and below (the dispenser on the wall at the right)! The above package says "Not for sale", has an expire date of 05/2012, and carries the brand "choice (TM)". My local informants tell me it's the South African government that hands them out for free. Evidently, they've understood that using them before catching HIV is better that eating garlic after getting AIDS.

That's an improvement from 2006, according to the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian online:
SA shows garlic and beetroot at Aids conference

Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang opened the South African Aids exhibition to a background of brightly coloured displays at the International Aids Conference in Toronto, Canada, on Sunday. The exhibition showcases garlic, lemon and beetroot.


The controversial display of garlic and lemon elicited a heated response from those attending the opening.

Mark Hayward, of the Aids Law Project and the Treatment Action Campaign, said South Africa has a duty to ensure people have the best advice about the best medicines.


South Africa has more people living with HIV/Aids than any other country, with about five million people out of a population of about 47-million currently living with the disease.

Jacaranda, the South African national weed

According to my South African colleague Dillon, Jacaranda is the National Weed of South Africa.

Jacaranda is a tree. Its flowers are purple-blue, and the blooming is welcomed as a sign of spring -- not unlike Sakura, the cherry-blossom of Japan.

However, the Jacaranda tree is not indigenous to South Africa, and Dillon says it consumes more water than it helps binding to the soil.

At any rate, the many blue trees were an impressive sight all around Johannesburg and Pretoria!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

South Africa: Select your preferred language

Good morning! Goeie more! Jambo! Dumela! Sawubona! Molwene! Thobela! Dumelang! Bonjour! Bom dia! Namaste! Salem aleikum!

That's how I greeted the Sub-Saharan audience in Africa yesterday at the Sun Microsystems partner event in Kievits Kroon outside Pretoria. The languages used were English, Afrikaans, Swahili, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Northern Sotho, French, Portuguese, Hindi and Arabic, respectively. Or almost, as I left out the Arabic -- I didn't think of the sizable Moslem audience until too late.

There were many more languages than Arabic that I left out. Most importantly (and equally unintentionally), I left out Yoruba and other languages from Nigeria, which represents the most shining star when it comes to growth in today's Sub-Saharan Africa.

Just South Africa alone has eleven official languages. Let's bypass the most known of them -- English -- as it is nearly the same as elsewhere.

Second on my list is Afrikaans. It's second because of many reasons, one of which is that I discussed with numerous Afrikaans speakers. Another is that it's easy to understand for me, as it's so close to my native Swedish. Imagine travelling across the globe to find a sign that says "Gratis parkering", which is not only understandable for a Swede but is also spelt identically in Swedish (and means "Free parking").

Third on my list is Sotho. It comes in two varieties, North and South, and they seem mutually semi-intelligible. It's third as it was the language of my taxi driver on the way from the airport to my hotel, and he gave me a first lesson ("Dumela!" is "Hello!"). And as it happens, my taxi driver on the way to the airport also spoke Sotho, and was both happy and surprised that I knew how to say "hello" in his language.

Fourth on my list is "all the rest". Eleven languages is a lot. It seems that the black South Africans growing up in the townships of Johannesburg is either linguistically talented, or exposed to a very multilingual environment, or both. Or then the languages aren't really all that different from each other, but could be considered dialects. Anyway, of three taxi drivers surveyed, two spoke 8 of 11 languages, and the third spoke all eleven. Regardless of how strong the accent, that's still an impressive feat.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Comune di Monte Casino

It's Italy outside Italy! It does resemble the "Venetian" in Las Vegas, only "Comune di Monte Casino" seemed a bit less overly commercial.

While it doesn't show on the above picture, they've created a "blue sky" picture as a ceiling, creating an impression of height authentic enough not to feel too artificial.

Even the don't-swim signs ...

... and the police cars ...

... look very Italian, considering this is right outside Johannesburg in South Africa.

Update: I blogged the same thing on my Italian blog. And in the comments, people told me "Casino" often refers to "brothel", something I could verify on Wikipedia. And that the Battle of Monte Cassino (or Montecassino in Italian) was a famous WW II battle near Rome. So they say Italian passers-by would get quite amused at the choice of name for Monte Casino.

Four practical ways to learn a language: On the road, from a girlfriend, for the police, getting lost


That's hello in Sotho, the native language of George Swahi Moleko, the taxi driver who took me to the hotel today. It's hello also in the very related language of Tswana.

George speaks 8 of the 11 official languages of South Africa. And given that background, I asked for his advice on how to learn languages. He had four hot tips.

George Swahi Moleko's Tips for How To Learn Eight Languages

1. On the road. Meaning: On the street, in the township. For example in Soweto, people speak so many different languages that you pick it up from friends, when you grow up. That's how George learned most of the languages.

2. From a girlfriend. Some of the South African languages are difficult to learn for a Sotho speaker. Then, George asserts, you need more motivation, and more intense exposure to the language: You need a girlfriend. George mentioned having used the girlfriend method for learning at least Venda, Tsonga and Nguni.

3. For the police. While having to do with the police might not directly teach you so much, it indirectly motivates you. George means that Venda speakers are hugely overrepresented in the South African police, and they're likely to just reply "It's the law! The fine is 500 Rand. Everyone has to follow the law." if you complain in Sotho. But if you swap to Venda and say "My brother! It's not my own car. I'm so sorry. I was in a hurry. Anyone can do a mistake, my brother!", the policeman will be more understanding.

4. Getting lost. Not finding your way out, and having to rely on your environment, is a high motivator just like the previous item.

George's tips are fairly universal. At least they've applied to myself. I learned some Finnish according to method #1 (although not in Soweto). I clearly improved on my German according to method #2. And, although I nearly always insist on using my native Swedish with government officials in Finland, I'm clearly more willing to use Finnish if I'm the one having caused the trouble (such as speeding) and am at the mercy of a Finnish speaking policeman in Finland (George's method #3). And whatever bits and pieces I've picked up of languages like Russian, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese originally started from finding my way when immersed in places where few people share a common language with me.

South African breakfast: Worthy of an experiment!

Generally, breakfast is a time of day where I prefer not to experiment. My staple food is unsweetened, non-fried (i.e. not "crunchy") plain müsli with bananas and plain yoghurt or milk, or, when müsli can't be found (and it seldom can in the US), porridge (known in the US as "oat meal", as I've learned).

But at Palazzo Montecasino here outside Johannesburg, the breakfast table was very inspiring. Great mushrooms. Good baked beans. And a fantastic selection of fruits.

This made the experiment absolutely worthwhile!

"South Africa has many robots." -- "Is it?" -- "Ja!"

I'm in South Africa and observing life and language as usual. Within hours, I was reminded of three observations I made in 1992, the previous (and first) time I was in South Africa.

First, they've got plenty of "robots" here. But that's not R2D2 or anything that would interest Isaac Asimov. Robots are traffic lights in South Africa.

Second, there is this peculiar use of "is it?". I would find this normal: "South Africa is a warm country." -- "Is it?". But here, even this seems normal: "South Africa has eleven languages." -- "Is it?". People are saying "is it", regardless of the verb used in the sentence they refer to.

Third, people say "ja" all the time, for "yes". I would not spell it "Yeah", but "ja", as it seems to be influenced from Afrikaans.

As for the reason for "robots", I would expect it to be because "traffic light" as a word didn't exist when the ancestors of most native English speakers of South Africa left their mother country.

But the "is it" part surpises me. Is this one also due to Afrikaans influence? I've heard it from numerous native speakers of both Afrikaans and Sotho, perhaps also of local English speakers.

Ah, and finally, I never heard anyone use the phrase "Overseas" this time. Visitors, travel, and everything else formerly known as Overseas seems to be replaced by "International" nowadays.