Letter from Knysna December 10, 2018

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The pendulum of our lives has swung yet again. Six months. Six months. Six months. Yet what a difference six months makes. We left Cleveland on a grey gloomy day from a country depressed by the ugly divide of partisan politics, a falling stock market, and a President who has lost any semblance of self-control. We arrived in Knysna with the sun shining on the deep green hills into a country in recession but enthralled by a Judicial enquiry, the Zondo Commission into State Capture, investigating how a country could fall into virtual bankruptcy in a brief few years under the corrupt leadership of a President without any semblance of self-control.

Moonrise over Knysna estuary from our verandah at Belvidere

A disturbing aspect of some of the testimony is how people in power turned a blind eye to crimes they were aware of just to protect the ruling party. This was highlighted in an editorial in the Sunday Times on the day we arrived in South Africa entitled “ANC’s great betrayal of SA: the party before the people” which stated, inter alia,  “that on the evidence it’s obvious that deploying party hacks to positions of power has backfired spectacularly, and the people of SA are all the poorer for it.” A sad example is the electricity company, Eskom (Electric Supply Commission). The inept and corrupt leadership has taken the country from an electricity exporter to one interrupted daily by 1-2 hour “load shedding” that is having a devastating effect on daily life, particularly small businesses without generators, as well as on the economy in general.  The striking resemblance between what is happening in government in the States and what has happened to South Africa is terribly disturbing.

In short, Zuma enthroned corrupt cronies into the leadership positions of all departments including health, commerce, industry, mining, and almost succeeded in taking over the Treasury. Rules were changed, tenders previously negotiated directly between government and suppliers were now changed to enforce purchases through middlemen. These so-called providers were all shell companies created by the infamous Gupta family, to whom Zuma had sold his soul, and contract prices doubled. The profits taken by the shell companies were immediately squirreled out of the country, probably to Dubai, and the gross over spending drained the coffers. To ensure this was not challenged, government ministers were bribed, efficient employees in the agencies and parastatal companies were fired or demoted, and all agencies have become virtually non-functional. Now Zuma is on trial for corruption, if the case ever reaches finalization, and the Guptas are safely living in Dubai. The new President Ramaphosa is attempting to reverse these activities but is working with his hands tied behind his back because of the residual corrupted politicians and others who do not want to see the end of the gravy train. Personally, I believe the rot is so deep I have doubts they will be able to get out of the swamp. Remember, Ramaphosa was Vice President under Zuma. Time will tell, and I will continue to observe and report. One can only hope the checks and balances with a divided Congress will now prevent the USA from getting into so deep a crisis.

This is all such a self-made tragedy because indeed the country is beautiful, and there are so many people and organizations working on productive and charitable projects. The one I am most proud to report came to fruition just two days after our arriving back in Belvidere, and it has been led by my son Brett. You may recall that for well over a decade he has been the Isisombululo Program Manager in the Faculty of Health Sciences, at the University of Cape Town, funded by the Plattner Foundation. Over six years ago Brett dreamed the dream of creating a Youth Science Center in the middle of an extremely impoverished area of the Western Cape, in the township of Thembalethu. The difficulties he had to overcome were extraordinary, in particular getting the University of Cape Town (UCT), the Nelson Mandela University, the central government departments of health, science and education, the local governments, and the local population, all not only to work in cooperation, but not to try and take individual ownership of the project and the money. So complex were these issues that he actually earned a Master in Philosophy degree through the UCT School of Business with a thesis entitled “An investigation into the nature, extent and experience of collaboration between the Department of Health and community-based service providers.”

Finally, the center is complete, and Moira and I sat proudly in the main lecture hall of the new STEAMI center (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics, Innovation) on November 21 as leadership from national and local government, the Hasso Plattner Foundation, UCT, and local leaders and mayors declared the Inkcubeko Youth and Science Centre formally open. A brilliant innovation has been to incorporate a youth health center in the facility enabling youth to get sex education, contraception and other personal issues attended to without the stigma of standing in lines at overworked local clinics. I attach one photo of the main science laboratory-learning center. I engaged with a number of the children attending the opening and the excitement was palpable. I asked one young man what he liked best, and he told me he was loving the coding workshop at the computer lab he was attending. You have to remember these are kids coming out of impoverished homes with parents who are likely illiterate and unemployed. I told the young man to keep at it as he could become a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and he beamed. Yes, he knew who they were. To date nearly 200 children have been instructed in the essentials of coding, and in just a few months almost one thousand kids have gone through the facility. You will pardon Moira and me if we too beam in pride at what Brett has achieved.

Science lab at Inkcubeko Youth and Science Center, Thembalethu

Of course, Thursdays are my Plett Panters hiking days. For my first hike of the season we followed a trail that normally has a few small streams to cross on stepping stones. Exceptionally heavy rains of the past few days had resulted in streams becoming torrents and we had to turn back and take alternate paths. The Jubilee Creek area was not touched by the fires and the indigenous forest is at its best, probably to welcome me back.

Jubilee Creek in indigenous forest near Knysna

One week after arriving in Knysna we took the beautiful drive to Cape Town and Stellenbosch, where immediately I had two invited plenary lectures. The first was in Stellenbosch at the International Congress on Hormonal Steroids, Hormones and Cancer (ICHSHC 2018), allowing us nearly three days to rediscover the magnificence of this 350-year old town. We stayed in a charming B&B, Bonne Esperance, in the old town, and left the car alone for the rest of the stay. Across the street is the Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens with one of the finest collection of Bonsai in the world.

Examples of Bonsai collection at the Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens

The Cape and early Dutch architecture buildings have been restored to perfection, several original structures combined as the Stellenbosch Dorp Museum, the oldest home going back to around 1700. The glistening white buildings, deep blue sky, and green of the old oaks combine to give a town with a distinctly early South African ambience. But the numerous galleries, boutiques, profusion of fine restaurants, and even an excellent chocolatier where we sampled thin orange slices, caramelized, and then coated with dark chocolate, combine with tourists largely from Germany, Italy and France to give the town a very European flavor. We ate well at the Fat Butcher, the home-made steak sauce so perfect I persuaded them to give me a bottle to take home, the Green Vine with a South African twist to an Asian stir-fry, and the Stellenbosch Kitchen where I was overwhelmed by a Karoo lamb shank that fell off the bone. You would need weeks to get through the restaurants, and we never even ventured out of town into the winelands. I should add that no meal cost me more than a third of what I would anticipate at any equivalent US restaurant.

Early Cape Dutch architecture on a Stellenbosch street

The next meeting was in Cape Town at the International Congress on Endocrinology (ICE). South Africa, the Western Cape in particular, has become a major venue for international meetings of all types. In Cape Town we alternate hotels, for this visit staying at our favorite, the Alphen in Constantia, where we have stayed so often in the same suite, they have threatened to name it after us.  There is so much continually new in Cape Town, I will leave this to future letters. Worth mention was the premier of a new David Kramer musical, Langarm, which we enjoyed at the Fugard Theater. He is brilliant at depicting the ugly history of apartheid and the impact it had on people’s lives.

Lara has moved home in Hout Bay where we arrived on Max’s 8th birthday, much to his delight. The house is high up the mountain at the end of a cul de sac, with a large garden, swimming pool, and wondrous views.

Sunset from Lara’s house in Hout Bay

There are at least three important issues being debated in South Africa at this time. One is the proposed legislation for a constitutional amendment to allow the expropriation of land without compensation. I will deal with this in months to come. Another, an issue consuming South African Jews, and indeed many other South Africans, bears a close relationship to Colin Kaepernick. The Israeli anthem is sung by students at Herzlia, the Jewish High School in Cape Town, at important events after the South African national anthem. During Hatikvah two students took the knee to express dissent with activities of the Israeli government on the border and in the occupied territories. The school has responded negatively stating there are other venues for political discussion at the school, but that kneeling to Hatikvah shows disrespect to the State. The country is debating that decision. Beyond that debate, the Jewish community is deeply split and acrimoniously arguing whether such activities are traitorous to Israel and the Jews, providing fodder to anti-Semites, or whether it is OK to criticize the Israeli government without being negative about the country of Israel itself. For the moment Moira and I are listening to both sides and keeping our personal opinions to ourselves. The third issue is the Zondo Commission, mentioned above, where revelations each day are astounding, but most disturbing is the highlighting of the paralysis of the ANC at its highest levels of leadership to expose the state capture as it was happening, despite their being aware of looting of the state coffers.

There is never a moment’s dullness being in South Africa, our first three weeks clearly evidence of that.

Moira and I wish you all Happy Holidays and a healthy New Year


December 11, 2018