About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

05 April 2015

Thoughts on Rhodes

Commemorations of Cecil John Rhodes are quite prominent at Univsersity of Cape Town (UCT) - not only the statue overlooking the Cape towards Cairo on the lower bounds of Jammie Steps (the subject of the #RhodesMustFall campaign) but also above the university at the very scenic Rhodes Memorial. 

Rhodes is not the only colonial figure to be commemorated in South Africa or around the world; there are statues of colonial era Kings and Queens across the various colonies; statues of explorers who opened up the world for colonialism such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Livingstone in addition to the very specific colonialists, such as Rhodes, who drove for the expansion and exploitation of the colonies.

Nor is Rhodes and his most successful company - De Beers - the only company that profited from the exploitation of inhumane and racist policies. There are banks (e.g. JP Morgan Chase and Barclays) and insurance conglomerates (e.g. AIG and US Life) that profited from the slave trade; companies such as IBM, Porsche and Volkswagen that profited from Nazi era Germany and many other similar arrangements across the recent past. Entire economies and civil engineering marvels have been built underwritten by slavery and indentured labour without a whiff of modern human rights considerations.

At a recent UCT event, the vice chancellor, Dr Max Price, commented that "Rhodes is to black people in South Africa what Hitler is to Jews". On that comparison, it is incomprehensible that a statue of Adolf Hitler would still stand  in front of the entrance of a major German university 20 years after WW2. But at the same time, I do not support the German approach of erasing all mentions of nazism and its associated symbols. Erasing historical details doesn't make history go away - and instead of learning from the past, we end up burying our heads in the sand. UCT itself has changed from the intent of Rhodes' legacy - it is no longer just an institution for white males - but that doesn't mean that his other inexcusable legacies should be forgotten.

And the crux of the debate about Rhodes is more than the statue - it is about transformation of the academic staff. The fact is, the university's own policies and practices makes it difficult to transform. Appointing only staff based on retirements and vacancies means that promising "black" (in the South African EE speak) PhD and Masters students are not retained to drive the transformation. The fact that many of these students are also the first of their families to go to university and are often from financially struggling backgrounds, means that they have obligations that the stipend from a postdoctoral post, even if it is offered, won't be enough. Ultimately, Rhodes' fall won't be enough to address the underlying cause of the protest - and reducing the protest to one of simply about the statue is equally counter productive.

UCT has engaged in various forums on the question of what next. As an alumni I have a vested interest that UCT gets it right. For the statue, I would propose the way of Budapest's Soviet Statue Park. At the fall of communism various Soviet statues were collected and curated in a large outdoor park. Perhaps we can do the same - collect all the colonial (and apartheid) statues and create an outdoor park - perhaps even reuse Rhodes Memorial - so that the deeds and the context of their deeds are not forgotten; and future generations can continue to learn about the history and the implications of their deeds.

Academic staff transformation is a far trickier subject - as this is one area that does take a long time to realise. Academics won't be produced overnight - professors will still take time to write publications and supervise PhD students, and while they can be imported from various other universities; that approach doesn't necessarily improve transformation across South Africa - which should be an equal goal. And the fact that UCT has dithered in this area for so long means that this will still take time to come. 

My suggestion on the matter - create a fund to properly employ "black" graduates from UCT and beyond regardless of the department's vacancies. There is always a need to grow research capacity; so excess staff is not really a problem. These new members of staff can then move on as vacancies do come out - but now with experience and research credits under their belt, so they are no longer prejudiced by timing and lack of experience. This program cannot be a postdoctoral year - it needs to be equivalent of at least a lecturer position that contracts for at least 3 years and staff performance is evaluated in the same manner. Thus instead of chasing away the grads into the corporate workplace, hopefully there will be sufficient retention towards building a meaningful academic staff transformation; and a program that can have meaningful impact across South Africa. And, if there was such a fund, I would contribute.

03 April 2015

Movie: The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne's amazing physical transformation as Prof. Stephen Hawking is reason enough to see this biographic movie. Redmayne manages to convey both the darkness of suffering a potentially terminal illness as well as the will and optimism involved in becoming, perhaps the most famous scientist of our time. It is a snapshot of almost 50 years, so it doesn't necessarily always explain how ground breaking his work is; but the movie is not so much about his work but about his life. It's an amazing biopic that thoroughly deserves the plaudits it has received.

29 March 2015

Movie: American Sniper

Throughout the film, many characters ask the protagonist "why are you doing this". Chris Kyle, played by a very bulked up Bradley Cooper, never provides a satisfactory answer. American Sniper is not the stereotypical war movie, it is more like the propaganda film within Inglorious Basterds. It puts up a killing machine as a hero, but never explores why he is killing, other than the suggestion that it is to serve and to protect his fellow soldiers. 

But this portrayal leads to an equally interesting alternate. If soldiers are there just doing their masters' bidding - is it not the same as the very "savages" they are fighting? After all, the other side is probably doing the exact same thing - their movie about Mustafa - the Olympian sniper would probably be just as heroic and one sided. 

The victors often write the history; hence it is the American Sniper that is heroic and dies an untimely death. In an alternate universe, there maybe a similar  movie about Mustafa. And neither movie make great movies - just wonderful propaganda pieces.

22 March 2015

Ushaka KaSenzangakhona

The biography of the legendary Mzilikazi Khumalo, describes Ushaka KaSenzangakhona as an opera - although it doesn't really have any acting performances; and it is more akin to a cantata. The piece comprises of 4 soloists (vocal), a poet/prase singer, a large choir and a full orchestra - comprising of 4 main parts charting the life of Shaka. There is an interesting Masters thesis which I briefly skimmed through regarding the authorship of the piece, specifically on the history of the orchestration of the piece; which sheds interesting light on both the complexities of musical collaboration, and the effort in tracking the contributions of the various parties in the collaboration.
In some respect, a piece celebrating the life of a warrior king, on Human Rights Day (weekend), is strange - but at the same time, the performance of a Zulu vocal work, written in the style of western classical music, performed at a venue that was once a bastion of Apartheid art performances is also a celebration of South Africa's democracy.

Joburg Theatre's production featured the Gauteng Choristers, Sibongile Khumalo as the lead soloist, joined by Thembisile Twala (soprano), Kananelo Sehau (tenor) and Nkosinathi Emmanuel Maqoma (bass) and the bulk of the JPO as the orchestra - and it was a rousing performance. The praise singer/poetry performance by Mhlonishwa Dlamini, was the only real performer on stage brought a vibrant energy, with many in the audience shouting replies back with equal gusto; and provided an amazing emotional depth to the various acts of the piece.

The piece is really amazing - the musical score, the choral and the vocal soloists combine to perform an amazing musical performance. It's a pity that this show was only for 2 performances - this is something that should be performed and attended by more people!

20 March 2015

JPO's 1st 2015 Season, 4th Concert

It seems that the end of JPO's financial crisis is near; although the business rescue documentation continues to make grim reading. But on the strength of the final concert for the 2015 season - there is certainly hope - there was an almost capacity audience, the program and presentation was different; and there were even young members in the audience.

The evening started off with a homage to Johannesburg. WITS Professor Zaidel-Rudolph's Fanfare Festival Overture, originally written for Johannesburg's Centenary Celebration in 1986, but rescored for this performance, started the evening. Charting Johannesburg's growth, it starts of slow and slightly chaotic - but end with a flourish of percussion and African rhythms (from the Marimba and other percussion). 

Pallavi Mahidhara returned once again, this time to perform Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.1. Like her previous performances, this was once again a stellar performance, and got a very enthusiastic response from the audience. 

The highlight of the performance, and one of the highlights of the JPO performances I have attended - is Holst's The Planets - accompanied by a projection show organised via the WITS Planetarium. This is exactly the type of collaboration that is required for the JPO to draw more audiences - combine great music, with great visuals and provide more context for the performances. The projections included pictures from the Mars Rovers, and other NASA missions such as Cassini and Voyager; and provided a spectacular backdrop to the music. 

If this happens to be the last JPO concert - then the JPO ended of with a bang! The final season had variety and drew in new audiences - and new styles of performances. Hopefully, it can continue and carry on in this fashion.

12 March 2015

JPO's 1st 2015 Season, 3rd Concert

I missed the first two concerts of the season (as I was not in Johannesburg), and I was pleasantly surprised that the hall was a little bit fuller. Part of that could be due to a school group - I am not sure if they will return for other concerts. Daniel Boico returned to another stint as the conductor.

Schubert's Overture in D (In the Italian Style) started off the evening. I didn't really like the piece - I commented to M, that it sounded like a piece accompanying clowns in a circus at some points. It was neither memorable nor enthralling.

I am a big fan of Beethoven, and Czech pianist Lucas Vodracek, gave an amazing performance of Piano Concerto No 3. Vodracek posture at the piano was amusing - hunched over the keys, focused on making sure his fingers hit the notes correctly - so much so that M commented that it was as if, his body was built to play the piano. The performance was the exact opposite of the Schubert - both enthralling and memorable, and thoroughly deserved the standing ovation. And, as if to show off his virtuosity, he performed a jazz-inspired encore which showed of his amazing speed on the keyboard. The contrast with the Beethoven was jarring - but was an equally impressive performance.

After the break, the orchestra performed Mendelssohn's Symphony Number 4 - another Italian inspired piece to round of the evening. It was a solid performance - but yet again, nothing memorable.

09 March 2015

Queue for the iPhone

Over 4 months since the launch of the iPhone 6, I was surprised that there was still a line to buy iPhones at the Apple Store in Hong Kong. The system was very efficient - as you enter the line, an attendant takes the model, the number and colour, and then pick up once you get to the front of the queue; and then another attendant to pay.

In comparison, the Xiaomi store (I alsi bought a Xiaomi Redmi2) was almost empty, the Samsung stores were deserted. And this goes for other phone stores also - Apple seems to be the most dominant brand by far. Based on that, I think the spectacular sales numbers for the iPhone will continue for some time to come.