Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Robbing Peter to pay the lawyers -- Living with severe hunger

Abiola over at Foreign Dispatches comments on a story of sheer lunacy. A group of South Africans is suing their government for reparations over apartheid-era injustices. South African firms are being sued for "genocide, expropriation and other wrongful acts." But the government is also being sued allegedly for "continuing to allow companies to exploit victims". The lawyer said the government was being targeted "because of its failure to fulfil its obligations and its conspiracy with specific companies to violate these people's rights". He wants the government and the corporations to set up a $20 billion "humanitarian fund".

In case you're confused, the current African National Congress government was not only not complicit in the apartheid-era crimes, but they were actively fighting to bring down apartheid and minority rule. If the government loses, money will be paid from the South African government's general fund, and will thus take money away from programs for education and health and housing and public transport. Programs that benefit millions of South Africans who... suffered under apartheid.

Robbing Peter to pay, er, Peter... except with American lawyers getting a nice hefty cut.

Abiola hits the nail on the head when he writes: I have a sneaking suspicion that, like the civil actions against Microsoft for "overcharging", the real motive power behind this lawsuit lies not with the victims supposedly being "represented" by Ed Fagan and his accomplices but with the lawyers themselves; a bunch of sharp Ivy League law-school grads cotton on to some piece of plausible grimcrackery to hit the financial big-time and then set about rustling up victims they can use to further their legal entrepreneurialism in court. And short of a certain Godwin's Law invoking ideology, what more appealing cause could there be to ride to legal riches than apartheid?

I'd say the suspicion should be more than sneaking.


World Press Review reports on Ghana's National Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was set up to investigate human rights abuses since independance, most notably under the former regime of flamboyant strongman Jerry John Rawlings.

In 1979, Rawlings led a popular coup that overthrew a corrupt military regime. It handed over power four months later to a civilian regime, but in 1982, he overthrow that government. This second coup set in motion what would become the longest and most brutal military regime in Ghana, the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC). In 1992, he succumbed to pressure, organized rigged elections, and continued ruling with this disputed mandate. The National Democratic Congress government he formed, many Ghanaians say, was the most corrupt government the country had known.

WPR noted the Rawlings heavy-handed attempts to eliminate his high-ranking enemies with torture, kidnappings and arbitrary executions. But it also added that the abuses did not only target the powerful. Soldiers stripped female street vendors naked and beat them up in public for selling matches above the government-stipulated price. Arbitrary detentions, confiscation of property, arrests, and tortures were everyday occurrences. Yet the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank touted Rawlings as an example of African success and muted local complaints.

In 2000, opposition leader John Kuffour defeated Rawlings' handpicked successor and immediately faced demands for such a commission. But the 1992 Constitution had indemnified all military personnel from judicial scrutiny, making it impossible for those wronged to have any legal redress. To get around this, the new regime established the National Reconciliation Commission [NRC] to compile accurate historical records of past human-rights violations by providing a formal forum for victims to tell their stories.

WPR observed many similiarities between Ghana's NRC and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Though it noted that Ghana's body did not have the power to issue amnesty, since most of the guilty had constitutional impunity anyway. Except for very special cases bordering on national security, most hearings are conducted in public with heavy media coverage.


The CBC ran an interesting story on hunger in Ethiopia. The Canadian broadcaster's flagship news program, The National, interviewed the reknown Sierra Leonian documentary maker Sorious Samura on the topic. Samura lived for a month in a village 400 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, in the remote north of Ethiopia. It's a region where half a million people are destitute and 2.5 million more face starvation and death if the crops fail. Samura ate basically whatever the other villagers ate.

After four days, exhausted and shocked by the lack of food, he's worried he may not last a week, let alone a month. But it is not until he moves in with another family that he discovers he's been living relatively well. His new hosts have been given grain for two months, part of the government aid package. But their allowance of 12.5 kg a month is meant to feed one person, not an entire family. The reality is that the local administrator has to try and spread aid for 1,000 among 9,000 starving people under his control.
The food quickly runs out, and the family is forced to live off an unpalatable weed called Wild Cabbage. "It doesn't give you strength, you just piss it out," he is told. "We eat anything, just to have food in our stomachs," another villager tells him. "I dread sunset in this place," says a weakening Samura sadly. "I hate it when it's nightfall, because that's when most of the children start crying, and the adults coughing, simply because they've had little or nothing to eat."

By day 17, Samura is at breaking point. "Seriously, guys, you have to bring me something to eat," he tells the camera crew. "Otherwise I'm out."

The villagers live with that all the time.


At 1:01 PM, Blogger Bronwyn said...

I agree completely on the apartheid reparation story - greedy lawyers making the best of their luck


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