You need only check the date of this post and the previous one to realize my lax upkeep of this blog. There are a few excuses that I have for this fact. They vary in legitimacy. One week I had a cold. Then I changed jobs. Then I visited the USA for a few weeks. Then I started a new job. In between somewhere there was a second cold. I’m still not sure if I’ve had H1N1 yet, but it is something of which I persist in perpetual fear.

It would be ridiculous to try to catch up on all blog-worthy thoughts (yes, I know that the bar is rather low on this count) and all the stories I had published by The Times. Before I resume regular posting in the here and now I figured I would highlight a couple choice stories that I enjoyed working on and perhaps you might enjoy perusing as well.

I posted previously about a competition of la sape that I witnessed in the Yeoville neighborhood in Johannesburg. I ended up going back there to speak with organizers and the eventual winner of the competition. In all honesty, it was one of the most fun stories I have ever worked on. My hope was that this showed through in the audio slideshow that I produced about the event.

Well, the whole fiasco about the Gandhi house came to a close, though the seller, Nancy Ball, never ended up divulging the details about who bought it. It appears none of the people fingered as the final bidders actually bought the property. In the meantime, I wrote a piece about Gandhi’s not-so-simple legacy in South Africa.

Especially in his early days in South Africa, Gandhi’s activism was much more parochial than the universal non-racialism of the ANC. In attempting to secure fair land rights for Indians in the new, bustling Johannesburg, he protested in 1905 that “kaffirs” (a term he used often in his early writings) were being allowed to live in what was then known as a “coolie location”, theoretically reserved for Indians.

The 1906 incident in the train portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic film Gandhi is also troublesome. Gandhi was advocating that just upper-caste Indians be allowed to use the train, not people of all races.

His views did appear to evolve over time and it is hard to deny his inspirational fight against British colonialism in India.

In South Africa, his influence as a freedom fighter persists. Annual marches in KwaZulu-Natal celebrating his legacy attest to this.

Still, no South African besides Gandhi’s granddaughter, Kirti Menon, came forward with an offer for The Kraal compelling enough for the Ball family in terms of both money and historical preservation. According to Nancy Ball, the final three bidders were Menon, Malaysian e-commerce tycoon Vijay Eswaran, and a late entry by the Indian government.

Eswaran told The Times that if he buys the house he plans to create a museum that would “remind this South African nation of the great legacy indeed that they have”.

Menon echoed this sentiment. “Gandhi’s period in Johannesburg is of particular importance in his own development,” she said.

Gandhi’s time in Johannesburg was clearly influential. But its “legacy”, as Eswaran calls it, is a complicated one. His philosophy inspired, but his activism, limited in its universality, echoed throughout later Indian-black relations during the struggle against apartheid and discrimination. Mid-20th century riots in Durban are examples of violent tension between Indians and blacks. Some chafed against the ANC’s insistence on non-racialism and tying the Indian cause to the greater anti-apartheid one. Even now, it is an issue that hits a raw nerve.

On Monday, The Times published my story about a somewhat famous house in Johannesburg where Mohandas Gandhi once lived (the accompanying video can be viewed here). The owner of the house, Nancy Ball, has been struggling to find a buyer with an interest in preserving the house’s historical legacy.

Hidden away on a quiet street in Orchards, north of central Johannesburg, the house was designed by Gandhi confidant, architect Hermann Kallenbach.Its distinct thatched roofs and rondavel style give the house its informal name “The Kraal”.

Gandhi lived at the house with Kallenbach for three years, beginning in 1908.

Ball told The Times: “He left a lot of his peace here. It’s a very special place.”

She tried to find a way of selling the house to someone with a historical interest in the property and enlisted Stephen Gelb, founding director of the Centre of Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, on a voluntary basis, to try to find a suitable buyer.

Gelb tried to solicit the interest of prominent Indians in South Africa and even explored the possibility of Wits acquiring the property for use as a residence for visiting professors.

Little interest among the Indian community has surfaced, and Wits was similarly uninterested, Gelb said.

The story has been picked up by a number of international news sources, including BBC, and a number of Indian newspapers. But one Indian article, in the Deccan Times, caught me by surprise with its aggressive slant to the story.

Invoking Gandhi’s name to earn a fast buck does not seem to have worked wonders.

Unlike the London auction, there aren’t much takers for the house, where the icon of non-violence began his experiments with Satyagraha. Even the Indian-origin community members have shown scant interest in buying the property.

Based on the inquiries I myself have received, in addition to what I’ve heard from the other relevant parties, there’s been a great upsurge in interest since the article’s publication. Somehow, I think such “wonders” could still be forthcoming. To be continued…

Hey Jozi city officials, I think I’ve found the solution to all of your problems. Mimes and street sweepers.

Writing in Business Day, Anthony Prangley, of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, looks at former Bógota mayor Antanas Mockus’ successful strategy for ridding the notorious crime-infested Colombian capital from crime, and increasing basic service delivery. A lynchpin of the Mockus strategy? Mimes.

Mockus demonstrates the ability for low-cost societal innovation to have a high impact in changing social reality at the city level. His social interventions are borne out of theories of social regulation by citizens themselves. Whereas we tend to focus on the fear of legal sanction (legal norms) to regulate our citizens, Mockus looked at a broader range of forces. In particular, he took steps to increase the pressure of moral and social norms…

In addition to police officers, Mockus put mimes on the streets. They mimicked and embarrassed rule-breakers in a gentle and humorous way. People feared embarrassment, the social norm, more than the law, the legal norm.

The focus on citizens for their own self-regulation and policing has been hailed globally as groundbreaking and the results speak for themselves. What is most heartening in SA’s context is that widespread behavioural change was achieved in a relatively short time. Change is possible.

I’ll believe it when I see it. When it comes to societal regulation, I think different historical and cultural situations may affect exactly how effective such strategies can be. Fundamentally speaking, different societies experience shame in different ways.

On a small scale in Johannesburg, maybe this street sweeper in the CBD that my colleague Paul Takahashi profiled yesterday is an interesting, if entirely unprovable test case. Based on the report, it does seem unlikely that people can be shamed into voting. Maybe other forms of citizenship could prove more susceptible to these kinds of strategies.

Johannesburg 8

picture by flickr user lemoncat1

There’s a lot of talk in the run-up to the World Cup about branding Johannesburg as a “world class city.” One way to understand what that really means is to look at what cities are generally perceived as being worthy of the term. I came across the New York Times’ Globespotters blog today. It’s a group blog with posts written about Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris, and Rome. Perhaps it is not so suprising that no city from what us PC liberals call the Global South made the list (I don’t know, does Mumbai count?).

It’s worth debating the merits of Johannesburg as a world-class city. It’s definitely got the concentration of cultural and intellectual happenings to meet the threshold in that area. Tawana Kupe at the School of Humanities at Wits is doing a great job of bringing together local and international experts to debate in public many of the key political and economic issues facing South Africa today. Arts and music at local universities, small clubs, large concert halls, and exhibition spaces are abundant. Great food is easy to find. Perhaps most importantly, Johannesburg is a truly international city. It’s the business hub of the continent, one of its artistic hubs, and definitely a sporting center of the world (top-rated cricket and rugby teams … soccer is in the mid-seventies).

So why does it never make lists like that in the Times‘ “Globespotters” blog (which I’ve arbitrarily designated the be all and all of the designation “world class”)? I think some of this might relate to the immense poverty that is both in the actual city and close by in surrounding townships. Then again, Mumbai is not so different from here in that regard.

One answer, and this is definitely not a silver bullet, is that Johannesburg’s presence on the international scale of the lettered (read: internet-savvy) classes is much diminished. Last year I moved to Philadelphia (probably less of a “world-class city” than Johannesburg in my book) and quickly began working as a journalist there. Though I hadn’t followed politics and urban life there that closely while I was at college just minutes away, it only took me a few days to find a number of websites and blogs that brought me up to speed. I knew what the network of information about Philadelphia was, and the information was in-depth and accessible. Johannesburg is not like this at all. Much of the online commentary that I’ve found about life in Johannesburg is not presented in an accessible way, and is not always that interesting. Then again, maybe there’s something I’ve missed — if so someone please point that out to me.

I think the media strategy on the internet in South Africa is quite complicated given the relative lack of internet penetration (and particularly broadband penetration). But those issues are related to a domestic audience. Being a world-class city means having a presence that is accessible from both outside and in. No top-down marketing campaign can help Johannesburg in this regard. I’ll be curious to see how the cultural life of the city can become more internet-friendly as the World Cup approaches. Will the election set off a non-stop wave of attention on South Africa through next June? Will all that attention be good? How will private citizen journalists, established news media, and the government work to look outwards as the world turns its eyes this way?