Of all those who have been hurt and died terrible deaths in the Time of Robert Mugabe as prime thug in Zimbabwe, none have been hurt more than the women. They have been beaten, imprisoned, raped and starved; They have watched the bulldozing of their shacks; and they have watched the slow, terrible deaths of their children from malnutrition and untreated disease.
Maybe one of the worst of the hurts suffered by the women is the fear that they will die ahead of their young children, leaving them to die alone of starvation.
Such a tale was told in Washington this week by two of Zimbabwe’s most remarkable women. A mother of three went out to forage for food but collapsed and died. The starving children found some fertilizer she had hidden against the day when she could get some corn to plant. The children thought the fertilizer pellets were grain and made porridge with them. All three were poisoned and died.
Yet Magadonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, principles in the nonviolent, grassroots movement WOZA, talked not about privation and murder, but hope. Hope for enough food; hope for an end to violence to themselves; hope for their children; and hope for a free, productive and stable homeland.
Although both women have each been arrested more than 30 times, imprisoned and held without bail for a long period (“on remand,” in the English common law language of the tattered Zimbabwe legal system), they remain optimistic. In hell, they dream of heaven.
WOZA, which stands for Women of Zimbabwe Arise, but is also an Ndebele word meaning “come forward,” was formed in 2002 as a non-violent, non-political group, committed to the protection of women and their families by teaching them to protest for their human rights and by teaching them some basic skills, such as how to avoid violence and rape, whether it is domestic or state-sponsored.
Both Mahlangu and Williams are from the nation’s second city, Bulawayo, in Matabeland, where the predominant people are the Ndebele, an offshoot of the Zulus of South Africa. Mugabe may have reason enough to hate the women because of their activism, but the Ndebele have known his loathing since the first days of his rule in the early 1980s, when he sent his best troops, known as the Fifth Brigade, to effect a genocidal massacre that is believed to have cost as many as 25,000 Ndebele their lives. Mugabe is a Shona, the largest tribal grouping in Zimbabwe–which is slightly smaller than Texas–and the traditional rivals of the Ndebele.
Mahlangu is a pure-bred Ndebele, with a regal bearing that belies her long suffering at the hands of the police and military in Zimbabwe. Williams is of mixed race–with European as well as African ancestry–and therefore easily accused by the state paranoiacs of treason and crimes against the state. She says she is the subject of racial slurs from the police and security forces. They accuse her of being “white, English and a colonialist” even though she has the same coloring as President Barack Obama.
Although the two women have been frequently arrested and detained without trial, they have never been convicted. The charges most leveled are for threatening public order. Mostly, they have been held in police cells. Once one of them was taken to a men’s prison, where the arresting officer warned her that she needed a strong stomach. When she got there she found 500 men without sanitation, adequate water or food. Some had died, and others were dying of dysentery and starvation.
The women were brought to Washington on a low-key visit, organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights to receive its human rights award for 2009, presented to Mahlangu. Williams accepted for the women of Zimbabwe. The prize money, $30,000, will go to a violence and rape prevention program.
Extraordinarily, WOZA is not looking for money. Instead, they want the world community to bombard the police commissioner and the judiciary with faxes and e-mails to protest what Williams calls “persecution by prosecution.” WOZA, now 60,000-strong, can be found on the Web at www.wozazimbabwe.org.
Both women go on trial again Dec. 7. “If they know the world is watching, it helps,” says Mahlangu.
Besides human rights, the women have one other hope. They want to see Obama in person, even if it is across a crowded room.–For the Hearst-New York Times syndicate
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So Warren Buffett has bought himself a railroad: Burlington Northern Santa Fe, to be exact. Crafty fellow.
Buffett famously invests in easy-to-understand large companies with a strong competitive advantage that generate cash and above-average return on capital. He has not been dazzled by the computer age. Computers, though, have had a dazzlingly disruptive effect on one of his investments: The Washington Post Company, for which Buffett serves as a director.
By his own account, Buffett finds newspapering scads of fun, connecting with journalists. Because The Post Co. bought Kaplan, Inc., the educational services outfit, Buffett and other Post investors have been spared some of the pain that falling advertising and circulation have inflicted across the industry.
Even as he was enjoying newspapering, Buffett appears to have had his eye on more solid industries. In 2000, he paid $1.7 billion to acquire an 85-percent stake in utility MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, and later acquired the rest. Now he is paying $26.3 billion to acquire all of Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
It would appear that in these investments, these dull industrial cornerstones, Buffett has chosen government oversight over technological vulnerability.
Both utilities and railroads are government regulated and subject to the vagaries of public policy. But they are both necessary, and therein lies Buffett’s comfort factor. Electric utilities are not known for their gyrations, nor are railroads. Indeed, both have been largely shunned by hedge funds because they lack volatility.
Buffett, it would seem, is not balked by government or its impact, through regulation, on whole classes of businesses. Electricity companies are heavily regulated at the state and federal level–and in other ways, including pollution control, fuel mix and return on equity. Similarly railroad safety, service and return on equity are dictated by regulators.
Since the heady days of deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s, despite the conservative dialectic, the electric utility industry, in particular, has discovered regulation by the government to be both a burden and a godsend. Government stifles but it also succors.
Wall Street is conflicted about regulation. While it loves the security regulation brings to electric utilities, gas distribution companies and railroads, which makes their debt an attractive investment, it fears the extension of the government’s embrace to other industries and to itself. Wall Street would love, for example, to see the airlines back under the government’s wing–as would the carriers themselves.
While the political class is consumed with the machinations of Congress, and the activism of President Barack Obama, Buffett is tacitly declaring his apprehension about disrupting technologies: computers and their progeny, like the Internet and wireless communications. Buffet is voting for investments that cannot be moved to China and cannot, by today’s reckoning, be rendered obsolete by technology.
Washington is awash with analysts, pundits, reporters and strategists aggregating and disaggregating, dicing and slicing the smallest morsel of political change. Yet, since the end of World War II, technology has had as much claim on change as politics. The three great political events of this time have been China’s conclusion that communism and capitalism can abide together; India’s final realization that protectionism was holding it back; and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Did the end of the British Empire matter? Not really.
By stealth, technology has been changing the world, wiping out whole areas of endeavor and creating new ones. Thanks to the green revolution between 1950 and 1984, the world has been better fed. Thanks to the microprocessor, we have been gadgetized–from the way we enjoy music to the ease with which we stay in touch by telephone. Thanks to the jet engine, the world has been opened to all who can afford to fly. And thanks to new technologies, medicine posts successes daily.
But it is the computer that has changed everything, for good and otherwise. It is the computer that has robbed us of our privacy, but has put the great libraries of the world at our fingertips. It has made writers of us all, even while undermining traditional journalism.
So while we are parsing electoral tidbits, technology is the real shaping force loose in the world.
If you cannot embrace it, try and get to some safe, predictable high ground, like Buffett. He is known as the Oracle of Omaha for good reason. –For the Hearst-New York Times syndicate
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Here’s a dirty little secret: The Post Office isn’t so bad.
Although it’s the rhetorical emblem of all that’s wrong with government, the postal service is surprisingly dependable and efficient. Letters get delivered by the millions and very few are lost.
Where the Post Office fails, as most government enterprises fail, is that its dynamic is antithetical to creativity, invention and risk-taking. Government enterprises seldom innovate, except those in the defense arena and collateral endeavors like space exploration. The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency, does its job well enough, as does the FAA in controlling aircraft. It just wasn’t in the Post Office to create FedEx.
In Washington, and across the nation, politicians repeat often and loudly that the worst outcome of any new endeavor would be for the government to run it. To hear Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, tell it, the government is a vast anti-American conspiracy. Recently, he took to the House floor to protest against a government role in health care and claimed that anything government-run means socialism to him. And socialism, according to Gohmert, is the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
In Washington, there’s a more ambivalent attitude toward the bureaucracy. It’s not an abstraction to Washingtonians; government workers are neighbors, commuting companions, friends and family.
But that doesn’t mean that Washingtonians are taken in by it, or that they believe the government should grow more.
If you know enough government workers, you know that they’re not created equal; neither are their departments and agencies.
The Department of Defense is an archipelago of islands of success in a sea of contradiction and confusion. But the agencies, like Housing and Urban Development and Labor, are resigned to a level of ineffectiveness, often doubtful of the virtue of their own missions.
The challenge is to know what is best left to government or to the private sector.
Attempts to privatize support sectors of the U.S. military (base maintenance, security, fuel, etc.) have led to scandals at every level for companies like Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) and KBR, denounced in Congress and the media. Privatizing war is a questionable undertaking.
As often as not, government is lumbered with failing or failed businesses for political or social reasons. Amtrak is front-and-center among these and General Motors may join the group of government orphans — too important to fail and too rickety to succeed.
Finally, there is no political will to tackle the thorny issue of productivity in the bureaucracy. Politicians complain of government in the abstract and praise “hard-working men and women” in specific agencies.
Sadly, it boils down to hiring and firing. It’s hard to get hired in the government because of rules and rigidities and even harder to get fired.
The reverse applies in the private sector. Business operates on incentives, but also on fear. Fear is missing in government employment and it shows.
Government is not as inept as conservative politicians like to say, any more than CitiBank and AIG were models of corporate governance.
Some things organically belong in the government’s sphere and others far from it. Today’s question is: Where does health care fit? –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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The devil looks after his own. Or so it would seem in the case of Robert Mugabe, the de facto dictator of Zimbabwe.
Under Zimbabwe’s unity government established last year, President Mugabe, who took Africa’s garden and trashed it, has retained enough power to reverse the optimistic direction the country is taking. He and his ZANU-PF party still control the discredited central bank; the military; the police; the Central Intelligence Organization, which is Zimbabwe’s version of the KGB; and the Ministry of Information.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who, until the formation of the unity government was Mugabe’s great enemy and rival, has control of the Ministry of Finance. His ally, Finance Minister Tendai Biki, has done the impossible: He has brought the worst inflation the world has ever known to a halt.
The remedy was simple, though extreme. Biki substituted the U.S. dollar for the worthless Zimbabwe dollar. How worthless was it? Would you believe a currency that once had rough parity with the U.S. dollar was trading–if you could find a buyer–for 1 billion (sic) Zimbabwe dollars to 1 U.S. dollar? Incredibly, the Mugabe faction of the government and ZANU-PF party members want to bring back the Zim dollar, as it was known.
Under the new setup, the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange has reopened and is prospering. And again, shops have goods on the shelves for those who can afford them. While U.S. dollars have circulated illegally in Zimbabwe for some time, it is unclear where they are now coming from, and what is the plight of those who have no access to them and no employment, which is most of the population.
In fact, many Zimbabweans live in a barter economy without cash. Rural people lead a desperate subsistence life, relying on perhaps a few chickens, sometimes a goat or, if relatively well off, some cattle. Most depend on growing enough corn to feed their families and on the generosity of relief agencies, although these are often the targets of Mugabe’s thugs. Food is power and Mugabe has used his troops, police and secret operatives to control food, starving the opposition and feeding only his political loyalists.
In the face of Zimbabwe’s tenuous recovery, there are many questions about Mugabe and his acolytes, and about Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change.Will Mugabe use his control of the military and the courts to destroy Tsvangirai’s reforms?
Mugabe likes to be the top man, even the reviled top man. His unhinging can be traced back to Nelson Mandela’s release from long imprisonment in South Africa and the deserved global acclaim he was welcomed with. Until then, Mugabe had been the golden African leader. Also he and Mandela were courting Graca, the widow of former Mozambiquan leader Samora Machel. Mugabe lost out and Mandela married her.
Too much praise for the reformers in Zimbabwe might set Mugabe off on another spree of destruction. His favorite charge–if he bothers with charges as opposed to random beatings—is treason, which is a hanging offense in Zimbabwe.
There are also question about Tsvangirai: Some of his early supporters are very critical of his conduct as prime minister. One critic, who does not want to be identified but who played a big role in establishing the unity government, told me: “He has become Mugabe’s bagman. That’s about it.”
This was a reference to Tsvangirai’s recent world fund-raising trip. He did secure minor commitments from doubting donor nations, but most want to see what happens. The money that was raised will go to humanitarian efforts, not the Zimbabwe government.
The success or failure of financial reforms may rest on the diamond fields of eastern Zimbabwe. These were only discovered in 2006 and should have been a valuable source of hard currency for Zimbabwe. But Mugabe had another idea: He allowed the military to massacre itinerant miners (in one case, 80) and seize the mines for their own profit. This has solved a pay problem among soldiers and kept the military faithful to Mugabe. Another gift from the devil for his protégé, Robert Mugabe.
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The copper-wire telephone is in danger, traditional advertising is drying up and health care costs are through the roof and rising. What is the villain? Well, it’s technology; particularly, “disruptive technology.”
Disruptive technologies are devastating to established order. And they underlie Congress’s consideration the most wide-ranging legislative challenges it has faced since the New Deal: health care and energy.
Hugely effective but expensive new medical technologies, like magnetic resonance imaging, nuclear therapies and artificial joints, threaten to bankrupt the nation’s health care system. At the heart of the health care debate lie the escalating costs for these new technologies and how to shoulder and control them. The rudimentary solution is to get the well to pay for the sick, in the way that Social Security seeks to get the young to pay for the old.
After health care, Congress has to consider energy and its leitmotif, climate remediation. Here, too, it is faced with new technology forcing the issue. Even as the Senate contemplates taking up the House-passed bill, with its heavy emphasis on renewables, new drilling and discovery technologies are tipping the energy balance towards natural gas and away from other competitors like wind and nuclear power. Ironically, at one time, nuclear power was a disruptive technology that threatened to elbow out coal.
In electricity, Congress can force the market away from the disruptive technology toward something it favors for social and political reasons, like solar or wave power. The cost is simply passed on to the consumer.
As for transportation, the energy imperatives are dictated by the forces of infrastructure and sunk cost. In the long term, there are four options that will keep the wheels turning:
1.plug-in hybrids leading to full electric-powered vehicles;
2. hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles;
3. ethanol-powered vehicles and;
4. compressed natural gas-powered vehicles
These options are not created equal. Hybrids are here but the batteries are expensive, and the plug-in option dictates that the car sits in a garage or a parking lot that is equipped with plugs for charging. Also, the batteries decline with time and cannot be used after they lose about 30 percent of their design capacity. If you live in a high-rise, plugging in your vehicle is not yet an option. Ditto pure electric vehicles.
Hydrogen is a darling technology of the green community, which marvels that it is emission-free except for water. Trouble is, there is hydrogen aplenty in nature but not free-standing; it has to be extracted from hydrocarbons, like natural gas, or from water, with huge electrical input. Why not use the gas or the electricity directly?
General Motors markets a duel-use vehicle that can run on E85 (85-percent corn-derived ethanol). This fuel was a favorite of President George W. Bush; but the environmental impact of putting so much farmland down to corn for fuel and the effect on corn prices has taken the bloom off ethanol.
Natural gas–which can be used in a modified gasoline engine and has been made more abundant by revolutionary horizontal drilling technology–is advocated by T. Boone Pickens and others. It has come late to the transportation fuel wars because of fears of shortage, now proved groundless. Natural gas is not without emissions, but these are about half of those of gasoline. And it may be the big energy disrupter.
Congress, reluctant to pick winners for fear of also creating losers, intends to throw cash at every option in the hope that the market can make the choice later. But the market is not immaculate–and less so in energy than almost any other commodity. Electricity has to move down a finite number of power lines, and transportation fuels depend on the nation’s 160,000 gas stations for market entry. You can expect the gas station infrastructure to, say, provide replacement batteries, charging points, hydrogen terminals or natural gas compressors. But can you expect it to provide all of these?
Maybe the gas station, rather than being the vital element in the new energy regime, will be rendered obsolete by disruptive new technologies that allow gas compressing and electric charging in home garages and commercial parking lots. Maybe the hybrid of the future will have a compressed-gas engine and plug-in capacity, and all this will be achieved without the traditional gas station. Technology enhances, modifies and improves, but it is hell on established order.
Leon Trotsky said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Congress ought to know that technology, disruptive technology, is interested in it. –For the Hearst/New York Times syndicate
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