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Mhlaba’s Mercs
Cover of the NI Issue 265 I appreciated the realism of your issue on South Africa (NI 265). There is so much to be undone here, so much to do. We’ve inherited three civil services which we are supposed to combine and make efficient without upsetting anyone.

I’m told that a visit to the car park of the government buildings in Bisho, the capital of the Eastern Cape, reveals all. There you see a different Mercedes Benz model for each of the crazy puppet regimes we’ve had to live under. Mercs from the era of Mantanzima, who ran the former Transkei, and from Sebe and Gqozo of the former Ciskei. Mercs from the old provincial administration and now, sadly, Mhlaba Mercs, Hondas and BMW’s. (Raymond Mhlaba is the premier of the Eastern Cape.)

All of their owners are now happily employed in the ‘new’ South Africa. Somehow it all looks the same. There’s absolutely no interest in the local government elections due in October. The disillusionment is palpable – enough to try even the most courageous of optimists.

Charles Riddle
Rhodes University, Grahamstown,
South Africa

Age and sex
You wouldn’t know, I dare say, being young yourselves and all, but the cartoon dealing with old people and sex in your issue on Ageing (NI 264) got it all wrong. Actually, advancing age is accompanied by declining interest in sex and declining ability as well. On the rare occasions when one does manage to complete the course, so to speak, as one stumbles wearily over the last hurdle, one’s fleeting feeling of relief is tempered by the gloomy awareness that one may be called on to perform again, possibly in the not-too-distant future.

Children, on the other hand, are an absolute joy, just the thing to brighten one’s later years. If only it were possible to produce children without going through the ordeal of screwing. Young people, of course, will find all this incomprehensible. Their powers are unimpaired and they find screwing great fun, but they regard children with the utmost fear and loathing. Just goes to show you how badly arranged the universe is!

Lloyd Betzner
Toronto, Canada

Money talks
The same day that your issue on the East Asian Economic Miracle (NI 263) arrived, I received the latest issue of the Bristol University magazine. This recorded the visit here of Gorbachev and Princess Anne. Yet the picture on the front was of a visiting Malaysian Govern-ment Minister. The reason he was given pre-eminence is simple – Malaysia’s economic growth means that they can afford to send a large number of students here to study, and their money talks.

When economic success earns the country’s leaders that kind of respect (witness as well the response to the Pergau dam affair and the way the British Government tried to placate Malaysian Government feelings), when the standard of living is rising and when infant-mortality rates are falling so fast, is it surprising that the Government believes it is on the right track? To convince the Malaysians that political and trade-union freedom are important you will have to convince them that it is in their long-term economic interest to change their policies. Otherwise you are all in danger of being accused by such countries of resenting the success of former colonies.

John Suffolk
Bristol, England

No fiddling
I have noticed a recurring habit in your magazine which raises serious moral problems. I refer to your practice of tinkering with international boundaries.

Lethal Lies: The Arms Trade (NI 261) provides an example of this. The centrespread map shows Tibet and East Timor as separate countries which, in today’s reality, they are not. I ask: why bother? Or alternatively: why stop there?

To cite another example, Québec, like Tibet, was forcibly absorbed into a neighbouring political entity. ‘But,’ you might argue, ‘that was long ago. Québec was never an independent country and anyway Québecois aren’t really oppressed.’ But East Timor had no independent national history either, and many Québecois would still prefer independence over two centuries later. Who decides who is really oppressed?

China’s occupation of Tibet did deprive it of previous national sovereignty, and took place comparatively recently (1951). But only six years earlier the map of Europe was redrawn by dictate of the four Allied powers. Germans, Poles and others had no more choice in the matter than did Tibetans.

The fact is, a great many of the world’s peoples are ruled against their will by others and very few frontiers correspond accurately to cultural groupings. Fiddling with lines on a map won’t change the world, and if you do it inconsistently, might betray ethnocentrism. You’d do better to concentrate on what you do well: educating readers about issues such as cultural oppression and spurring them to take more meaningful action.

Ryan Stanley
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Kurds and the press
I am astonished to observe the British press in general downplay what may be the most outrageous attack on press freedoms in contemporary history. For example, the bomb attack carried out on three offices of the pro-Kurdish newspaper, the Ozgur Ulke, last December. The attack left one person dead and 23 wounded.

It came only four days after Turkey’s military-dominated National Security Council held a meeting in which a decision was taken to silence Kurdish aspirations and demands. Both the Turkish Chief of General Staff and the Interior Minister are on the record saying immediately before the bombings that ‘Ozgur Ulke should be stopped’.

Journalists like myself writing for the paper are constantly threatened with death. Many of its employees have been detained and tortured by Turkish police. Kiosks selling the paper are routinely bombed and the 10- to 15-year-old street sellers are killed.

Ozgur Ulke is a continuation of Ozgur Gundem, which was closed down in April 1994 following systematic attacks: 15 of its journalists were killed and 330 separate court cases were launched.

Ozgur Ulke continues to print through different offices and facilities these days, owing only to the immense sacrifices of its staff, who are dedicated to press freedoms in a country like Turkey where the majority of the media is under direct or indirect state control. The attack in December was, as far as I am aware, the biggest attack of this kind in the past decade. An attack which we Turkish and Kurdish journalists can only fight with our pens, but more importantly with the knowledge that solidarity between journalists constitutes the main guarantee of press freedom. Do we ask too much?

Ismet Imset
Ozgur Ulke, Istanbul, Turkey

People’s will
I would like to thank all those people who wrote the stream of letters received by the Governor of the state of Georgia, prison officials and me. Your vigorous objections to the letter-writing ban imposed on me finally won the day! The ban has now been lifted.

Officials would never admit it openly, but we know that it was your individual letters that did this.

The lesson to be learned from all of this is that we must not quietly stand by in the face of bureaucratic terror. Individ-ually and collectively the will of the people is strong. A lot of you went beyond lip service and we are all grateful and the better for it. Keep writing!

Brandon Astor Jones
EF-122216, G251, GDCC, PO Box 3877,
Jackson, Georgia 30233, US

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

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L E T T E R   F R O M   R U S S I A

Bribery in the rain
Olivia Ward finds herself trapped by a moral dilemma.

It was a dark and stormy night – the favorite kind of night for bad crime novels, Moscow crooks and the traffic police.

I was confronted by the heart-stopping sight of the latter while driving back from a friend’s flat at an hour when no innocent Muscovite is abroad. He was waving a white baton.

What had I done? The rain was too heavy for fast driving, and no traffic lights kept the unruly in order. There wasn’t even a cunning Stop sign lying in wait for the careless.

Knowing better than to argue with a traffic cop – who carries a handy gun and keeps in practice by tyre-shooting – I pulled over.

He beckoned to me insolently. At three in the morning on a dark street in a rainstorm I was to get out of my locked automobile.
Tales of robbery and mayhem by police impostors reeled through my mind. I reached for my trusty Swiss Army knife along with my credentials. It was small, but I could wave it menacingly.

The cop scarcely glanced at my licence.

‘Your car is dirty,’ he said with a malicious smile.

In Russia a dirty car is still an offence, albeit an inescapable one for any driver who ventures into the sludge of the road. But police in search of ready cash use it to full advantage.

‘The car was washed yesterday,’ I responded feebly.

‘Well, it’s dirty now.’

Cutting short the small talk, he reached into his car and snapped on the light, pointing to the windscreen. In full view were two 10,000-rouble notes, the equivalent of about five dollars. As bribery went, it was cheap at the price. But it was still bribery. Something I was taught to recoil from in horror.

Since I came to this country two years ago I have managed to avoid it, unlike my less fortunate friends. Bribery is corrupting to both the briber and the bribee. Worse than robbery because it has the veneer of legitimacy: one must keep up the pretence of a fee for service while entering the pact of wrongdoing.

Illustration by JUDY HAMMOND

But this country is sticky with bribery and corruption that began hundreds of years ago and flourished in the Soviet era. Now capitalism red in tooth and claw has taken over and bribery is ‘normalna’, part of doing business. But it is crippling the system and making sure it will never be normal, convincing millions of people that they can become rich by withholding service rather than giving it.

Anya, trying to get a passport in time for a friend’s wedding in Paris, was told three months wasn’t enough. She resisted bribing a go-between to obtain the document – and missed the wedding.

‘I’m not going to waste time any more,’ she told me grimly, making plans to visit her now-married friend. ‘I’m pretending it’s part of the cost of the trip.’

Another friend, Sergei, held off a massive bribe demand for six months, refusing to grease the palms of licensing officials who always found a new loophole for not giving him his business papers. Eventually his exasperated director arranged the pay-off, which was costing the company millions of roubles in lost revenue.

Some Westerners ease their consciences by giving the task of bribery to their staff. Caught in traffic I would amuse myself wondering how many of the company drivers were delivering ‘gifts’, from vodka to briefcases full of cash.

Now, soaked to the skin and shivering in the darkness, I was not amused. The cop held all the cards – my licence and credentials. Under a new rule, ironically aimed at reducing bribery, he would confiscate them until I paid a fine at a registered bank, an impossibility in the early hours of Sunday morning. Without my licence I could be jailed for driving a car.

I stared at him with fury. Fury at the system which reduced him to a petty crook and me to an accomplice. Fury at the complacency with which we all accepted the corruption. And fury at the sheer frustration of not knowing how it could be changed.

Reaching into my wallet I clawed out 20,000 rubles and threw them through the window of his car. With a weary grin he handed back the documents.

‘Normalna!’ he chuckled as I pulled away.

His voice was lost in the storm.

Olivia Ward is the Moscow bureau chief of the Toronto Star.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 267 magazine cover This article is from the May 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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