Columns

Uncomfortable truths: Do we really care?

...Hillel Academy, Winnie Mandela and Russia

Franklin
Johnston

Friday, April 20, 2018

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Hillel is a school for 'white' kids, attended by black kids; it's a good school. A recent ninth grade test question was shocking, fact-based, but provocative: “During the practice of Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved people had no rights whatsoever; blacks were often punished most severely. Your task is to create a model of a punishment method of your choice.”

The choices were “shackles (sic), coffle, slave collar, the cat o nine tails whip, etc.” Do we explode with anger or be proud the principal thinks we are so “out of many one” we take no offence? This test was thoughtless and insensitive, but did it do damage?

At a school named for Hillel, the icon of Jewish faith, a question such as, “During the Nazi era Jews had no rights whatsoever, were put in camps and tortured, raped, limbs amputated, subject of gruesome experiments and gassed to death. A Nazi could do to a Jew whatever he wished. Create a punishment of your choice for Jews and give a clear description” might be set. It would be unacceptable.

The board has apologised, but what's happening at Hillel, or to Jamaicans, that teachers feel they can insult 92 per cent of us without consequences? Are we too passive, obsequious? Do we need to emancipate ourselves?

The other Mandela

Winnie Mandela was canonised as Jamaicans wallowed in grief at her funeral. But if you saw her sweep into public space with her entourage you may be shocked at her imperious sense of entitlement. Maybe there are two Winnie Mandelas (two Mugabes too?); one a great freedom fighter who later morphs into a megalomaniac, murderer and tyrant. Which is the true Winnie?

Her entrances were memorable; the airport goes silent, no one breathes as her clan musters. A dozen burly, black-suited men suck oxygen from the space and the silence intimidates passengers. Soon the rustle of fabric, golden bangles sound as timbrels; Winnie — applause! She fills space carved by her security detail and, like a Ferrari, she wheelies to the forecourt; Mother of the nation!

Death gives us selective amnesia about the deceased. We worked in South Africa for white, black firms, the African National Congress (ANC). We never met Winnie, but heard many views; and, though not in sync with President Thabo Mbeki, billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa, or my better self, she was my hero. She was “necklace Queen of Soweto” and, in April 1986, declared “with our boxes of matches and necklaces (gas -filled tyres placed around black bodies and lit) we will liberate this country”— judge, jury, executioner!

The Mandela Football Club never scored a goal, but routed many of her black enemies. Recall 14-year-old Stompie Seipei; kidnapped, tortured, killed by them in 1989? Soweto people burned her house to the ground; she was condemned by the ANC in exile and later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found her “politically and morally accountable for gross violations of human rights”.

Winnie, a great contradiction, was born in Pondoland, buried in Fourways Memorial Park, the cemetery of the white rich and famous. Nelson was interred in his modest birthplace in Eastern Cape. Does this bespeak distance from the glorious struggle or just deserts?

Russia, the fallen?

The world is exercised by Russia's President Vladimir Putin as America's president dances with him for reasons unknown. Russia's reach exceeds its economic grasp but it is heir to the failed Soviet Federation of 15 nations, so in 1991 it got nuclear toys, big army, arcane poisons, weapons of mass destruction — fun!

The world's largest country has half America's population but its nominal gross domestic product (GDP) is not half but one-tenth the USA's; the size of little South Korea or Australia's. Its per capita GDP is half Barbados's, the size of Grenada's, but more than ours. It has gas, oil and lives on energy prices.

Like us, it has ethnic variety, can't feed itself; rich citizens (oligarchs) keep their cash in London and New York and visit Russia sparingly. The old Soviet Union gave all work, housing, medical care, education, so people have a safety net. The divestment of State enterprises means market forces took hold. There was chaos and a kleptocracy was born as officials stole the nation's wealth. Putin, the former KGB agent, imposed order, restored national pride, is admired, and a billionaire. The economy is often febrile but it has massive firepower, so given sanctions, food security is key. How much of Putin is bluster; would he starve his people to finance a protracted military campaign with the nation that feeds half the globe?

Jamaicans live in a movie world, copy fantasy names, and do not wish to be confused with facts or think deeply. We like who we like, don't read much; things will sort out if we lay low and do nothing and only personal disrespect. We say, “If it was me, yuh see!” and it gets us going.

Hillel does not affect me; I just want a criss car. Winnie is great and had a good reason for her cruelty, right? Russia under sanctions is living without American food or our unkempt freedom, yet we admire “bad ass” Putin on his horse.

We do not copy his tactics to build Cuban-style food security; just keep the chicken back reefers coming. Would a USA embargo help us be sustainable? Critical thinking may soon come to schools; but values are for the weak, so it may be some time before we make good decisions or do right.

I love my country, but fear we may find oil before self-knowledge, self-respect and self-control — big worries. Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager; fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK); and lectures in logistics and supply chain management at the Mona School of Business and Management at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com.

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